Oil exploration tests off Alaska prompt lawsuit

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Mon May 5, 2008 6:28pm EDT

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska May 5 (Reuters) - A coalition of environmental and Alaska Native groups on Monday filed a lawsuit seeking to block the oil industry from conducting seismic tests the groups say will harm whales, walruses and other marine mammals in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, targets permits issued to Shell (RDSa.L) and BP (BP.L) by the U.S. Minerals Management Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Shell holds permits to survey areas of the Arctic Ocean for potential new oil sources, and BP has a permit to survey the area around its Liberty prospect in the Beaufort Sea.

The main threats from seismic tests are the loud, repeated blasts made by air guns used to map out undersea geologic formations and seafloor conditions, environmentalists say.

"They're far louder than sound levels that can injure, that can literally deafen marine mammals," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Other plaintiffs include the Native Village of Point Hope, the Alaska Wilderness League and the National Resources Defense Council.

Cummings said that other threats come from the presence of a fleet of vessels needed to conduct the tests. There are risks of leaks and oil spills, a potential for ship strikes injuring swimming mammals and disturbances that could scare animals away from their migration and feeding areas, he said.

With the oil industry rushing to tap Alaska's offshore regions, this year is shaping up as the busiest offshore seismic seasons since the 1980s in the Chukchi and Beaufort, according to the lawsuit.

"It's going to be loud in the water for any marine mammal," Cummings said.

An MMS spokeswoman said the agency had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and request for a preliminary injunction and could not comment on the legal efforts.

MMS spokeswoman Robin Cacy said that along with the permits already issued to Shell and BP, there are other permits pending.

"Obviously, since we've got a bunch of new leases in the Chukchi, they're going to be doing a lot of seismic (work)," she said.

A February lease sale held by MMS yielded a record $2.66 billion in high bids for Chukchi exploration rights, including $2.1 billion from Shell and $506.4 million from ConocoPhillips (COP.N). Repsol, StatoilHydro and Eni also picked up dozens of tracts at the lease sale.

Earlier this year, Shell spent $2.1 billion acquiring leases in the Chukchi, the remote sea that separates northwestern Alaska from Siberia. Shell also plans exploration work this year at its Sivulliq prospect in the Beaufort Sea, which was among the properties acquired when the company spent $44 million in a 2005 lease sale.

ConocoPhillips also plans to do seismic work this year around its Chukchi leases. Other companies, including Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a Barrow-based Native-owned corporation, have applied for permits to conduct offshore seismic tests on behalf of various oil companies. (Editing by David Gregorio)

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