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For Immediate Release, May 5, 2010

Contact: Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Polar Bears From Interior Secretary Salazar's Arctic Offshore Drilling Plan

Dangerous Drilling Plans Completely Discounted Oil-spill Risk

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a formal notice of intent to sue Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for failing to assess the impacts on endangered species of a large oil spill that could result from this summer’s offshore exploration drilling in polar bear habitat off Alaska. In approving drilling plans by Shell Oil, Salazar concluded that the risk of a large oil spill from exploration drilling was so remote that no analysis of such a spill under the Endangered Species Act was required.

“While Salazar’s conclusion that exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas posed little risk of a large oil spill was dubious at the time it was made, in light of the recent catastrophic oil spill occurring in the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s exploration drilling, such a position is now clearly untenable,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center.

On October 16, 2009, Secretary Salazar approved Shell’s exploration plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea, and on December 7, 2009 he approved a similar Shell plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea. These Arctic seas, north of Alaska, are home to several threatened and endangered species, including polar bears, Steller’s and spectacled eiders, and bowhead whales. No technology currently exists to clean up a large oil spill in icy waters.

In approving Shell’s plans, Secretary Salazar adopted Shell’s conclusion that “a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.” Similarly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency in Secretary Salazar’s Interior Department that is charged with protecting the polar bear and other threatened and endangered species, declined to consider the impacts of a large oil spill in its Endangered Species Act analysis.

“Given the difficulties of dealing with a spill in the calm waters of the Gulf, where response equipment and other resources are close at hand, it is the height of irresponsibility for Secretary Salazar to allow Shell to drill for oil this summer in remote areas of the Arctic when no technology exists to clean up an oil spill in icy conditions, and mobilizing an effective response would be virtually impossible,” said Noblin.

The Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies, such as the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Department of the Interior responsible for managing offshore oil, to ensure that any action they carry out does not “jeopardize” a threatened or endangered species. Salazar previously concluded that Shell’s drilling plans would not jeopardize the polar bear and other imperiled species of the Arctic. The Endangered Species Act requires agencies to revisit their conclusions about an action’s impacts on species if new information calls into question their conclusions. The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico triggers a legal obligation for Secretary Salazar to reexamine his approval of Shell’s drilling permits in the Arctic. He has apparently not done so, prompting today’s legal notice.

While Obama has announced that no new oil-drilling operations will occur until review of the Gulf spill is completed, both Shell and Secretary Salazar are apparently interpreting Obama’s directive as not applying to Shell’s drilling plans. Shell’s drilling, unless stopped by Obama or the courts, would begin in early July, likely before the causes of the Gulf spill are determined, possibly before the leaking well is sealed, and certainly before cleanup in the Gulf is completed.

“This week, as a result of Secretary Salazar’s rubberstamping of oil-company drilling plans, we are seeing oiled birds and dead sea turtles wash up on the beaches of Louisiana,” said Noblin. “Unless the secretary calls a halt to Shell’s dangerous drilling plans we run the risk of seeing dead and oiled polar bears washing up on the coast of Alaska this summer. By recklessly letting Arctic drilling go forward, Secretary Salazar is playing Russian roulette with the polar bears, bowhead whales, and coastal communities in Alaska that would be devastated by a spill.”

Today’s 60-day notice of intent to sue, sent by the Center for Biological Diversity to Secretary Salazar and two Interior Department agencies, the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a legally required precursor to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.

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