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Arctic drilling opponents gain momentum from Gulf oil spill

Exploratory drilling is scheduled for July in the waters off Alaska's northern shore. Environmental groups, reeling from the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill, are fighting to put those plans on hold.

By Staff writer / May 6, 2010

On the frozen Beaufort Sea outside the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska a polar bear takes a break from gnawing on whale meat in this 2006 file photo. A fight to limit exploratory oil drilling off Alaska's northern shore is heating up following last month's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.



As the federal government and BP struggle to bring the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill under control, a battle over drilling in arctic water off Alaska's northern shore is heating up fast.

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While most eyes remain glued on the Gulf of Mexico's Deepwater Horizon blowout and its massive oil slick, some are turning to the northern shore of Alaska where a rig called Frontier Discoverer and support ships are now headed to begin exploratory drilling for Royal Dutch Shell in the Beaufort Sea in July.

It was drilling in deep water that led to the BP blowout and environmental catastrophe now embroiling the Gulf, a disaster critics say would be many times worse were it to happen in the icy waters and often ferocious winter conditions of the arctic.

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Exploratory drilling has not occurred in Alaska's northern waters since the 1990s. Today there is just one production well - owned by BP - that is actually sitting on a manmade island - not in open water.

Has the federal government taken steps to ensure that the Frontier Discoverer will not be the next Deepwater Horizon? Residents of native village Point Hope, just 20 miles from one of the drill sites, say it definitely has not.

"We're worried," says Caroline Cannon, president of the village, in a phone interview. "We don't want to see what happened in the Gulf happen to us - with all the ice in our waters it would be a much bigger nightmare to clean up."

On Thursday lawyers for Point Hope natives and about a dozen environmental groups will argue before the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Portland, Ore. that Shell was never required by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the Department of Interior to develop plans for handling a big spill or blowout in the arctic. The court is expected to issue an accelerated judgment on the case in the next few weeks.

In approving Shell's plans, the MMS 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," the Center for Biological Diversity will argue in court, according to a statement.