First Nation and environmental groups in Alaska are legally challenging Shell’s permit to drill in the Arctic Chukchi Sea this summer. The Chukchi lies north of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia and is habitat for endangered species including bowhead whales, walrus and polar bears, which play a crucial role in the way of life of Alaskan Native communities.

Yet the Chukchi also holds 15-30 billion barrels of recoverable crude and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Until now, this frontier has barely been explored – only five wells have ever been drilled there. But in 2008 Shell paid $2.1 billion to acquire exploration leases, to complement its existing leases further east in the Beaufort Sea and south in Bristol Bay. According to Shell, it has already completed four years of “seismic” (explosives) and “hazard work”, describing the region as possibly home to “the most prolific, undiscovered hydrocarbon basins in the US”. In December 2009, Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved Shell’s plans to drill three exploration wells this summer.

Luckily, First Nation communities and wider environmental groups have managed to put Shell’s plans on hold by challenging the US Government’s formal approval and award of a permit. A similar legal challenge in December put Shell’s drilling plans in the Beaufort Sea on hold.

One of the groups opposing Shell’s plans is the Alaskan Native network REDOIL – “Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands”. Inupiat resident of Nuiqsut and member of REDOIL, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, explained their problems with Shell’s plans, “We are deeply concerned about the increasing industrialization of the Arctic Ocean and its effects on indigenous people of the Arctic. Noise from Shell’s drilling can harm whales and other animals we rely on for our subsistence way of life. Air pollution sickens our communities. An oil spill would have devastating consequences for years to come, especially since there is no way to clean up oil in the icy Arctic Ocean. MMS has ignored our voice and approved Shell’s drilling without fully analyzing and disclosing the risks and potential impacts. Our ecosystem and culture should not be put in jeopardy for the profit of the oil industry.”

Robert Thompson, Chairman of REDOIL and a Inupiat resident of Kaktovik, had previously explained that “REDOIL is in opposition to the exploration activities of Shell Oil which have been approved by the Minerals Management Service. We take this position as a means to protect indigenous culture. The Inupiat culture has thrived for thousands of years. We have a close relationship with the bowhead whales and marine life of our region. Climate change is happening. The proposed activities , which lack a credible plan to deal with oil spills , if allowed, can have a devastating effect on our already stressed ecosystem. Our ecosystem and culture should not be put in jeopardy for the profit of the oil industry.”

Rick Steiner, a professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program in Anchoragewrote about Shell’s Chukchi plans in 2008, arguing that “Oil drilling cannot be done safely in the Arctic offshore ecosystem. The government estimates more than a 50 percent chance — a probability — of a major oil spill from these leases. There is little possibility of effective spill response in these ice-covered seas. Several spills from offshore platforms have been as large or larger than the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill — the Ekofisk in the North Sea, Ixtoc in the Gulf of Mexico, Funiwa No. 5 off Nigeria, among many other offshore disasters.”