A federal appeals court in San Francisco Wednesday blocked Shell Offshore Inc.’s plans to explore for oil and natural gas in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Canada.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stayed Shell’s drilling plans until it can decide whether the Interior Department properly assessed the potential for environmental damage before it issued an exploration permit.

Conservation and Alaska groups, who challenged the Shell permit, “have shown a probability of success on the merits, combined with the possibility of irreparable harm if relief is denied, and raised serious questions and demonstrated that the balance of hardships tips sharply in their favor,” the three-judge appellate panel said in issuing the stay.

The court said it would hear the case during the week of Dec. 3. It directed the conservation and Alaska groups to file briefs by Sept. 5, and Shell Offshore and the Interior Department to respond a month later.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she was “very disappointed” by the court’s action. “This is the second development project with costs exceeding $200 million to be blocked by an action by this court. Decisions such as these pose a threat to our economic future.”

Some of the plaintiffs in the case are the Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment and Resources Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, North Slope Borough and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. They claim that drilling in the Beaufort Sea would cause harm to marine mammals, such as the bowhead whale, polar bears and certain birds.

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