In an apparent attempt to preempt judicial challenges that could further delay drilling in Alaska's offshore, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell plc has asked a federal court to review its Arctic oil spill response plan to determine whether it complies with federal requirements.

Shell received conditional approval in December from the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for its revised exploration plan to drill up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea beginning this summer (see Daily GPI, Dec. 20, 2011). The Environmental Protection Agency's environmental appeals board in January also voted to deny all challenges to air permits granted to Noble Discoverer drillship, which is to oversee some of the operations (see Daily GPI, Jan. 17). Some regulatory barriers remain but Shell officials are optimistic they may be able to launch a long-delayed program this summer.

To remove a big barrier -- the threat of lawsuits -- Shell on Wednesday requested a declaratory judgment against 13 environmental groups that have impeded the producer's drilling plans for five years (Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. v. Center for Biological Diversity Inc. et al, No. 3:12-cv-00048-HRH). The groups, which together and separately have sued to prevent drilling in Alaska's offshore are the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Redoil Inc., Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment and Resources Center, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Ocean Conservancy Inc., Oceana Inc., Defenders of Wildlife Inc., Greenpeace Inc. and National Audubon Society Inc.

A Shell spokesman said the filing was "an attempt to avoid a legal challenge on the eve of operations. We are anticipating that they were going to sue us."

CBD lawyer Rebecca Noblin called Shell's filing a "desperate attack on the First Amendment rights of those who oppose drilling and it reeks of an attempt to stifle opposition."

Separately, Shell Oil Co. filed an injunction against Greenpeace, whose activists have attempted to prevent company drilling vessels and equipment from being transported to the drilling site (No. 3:12-cv-00042-SLG). In February six Greenpeace members were arrested after they boarded one of Shell's drilling rigs in New Zealand that is to be moved to the Arctic. Shell asked for a temporary restraining order to prohibit Greenpeace members from engaging in "illegal and dangerous actions" related to the upcoming Arctic exploration program.

Shell estimates that to date it has spent more than $4 billion for the right to drill in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Opponents have thwarted the company with a variety of legal actions, claiming among other things that drilling would harm wildlife, water and air, as well as destroy the livelihood of fishermen. The opposition also claims that drilling in the remote, icy area is risky, especially if an oil spill cleanup is needed.

However, federal officials have said Shell's spill response plan, updated since the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, would ensure that in the event of a spill or an equipment malfunction, an offshore well could be shut down quickly and any discharged oil quickly contained.

Shell Oil President Marvin Odum said in January the company would have "every piece of response in Alaska available on a one-hour notice." Speaking in Houston at the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, he said, "The access to the equipment will provide for a much different response than what the world watched in the Gulf of Mexico."

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