By BECKY BOHRERAssociated Press
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Interior Department approval of oil spill response plans for an Arctic drilling program off the Alaska coast did not violate environmental laws and policies, a federal judge has ruled.
Monday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline comes in consolidated cases over the approval of Shell Oil's response plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas by the department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE.
Conservation groups sued last year, arguing the approvals violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The government countered that the groups' claims were based, in part, on a misreading of the laws and Shell's response plans. Shell asked that Beistline uphold the approvals.
Beistline found BSEE was not required to conduct an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act and was not required to go through a process to determine whether its approvals of the plans would affect protected species and their habitat.
The approvals themselves were not authorizing a project or activity, he wrote, but merely stating that the plans met regulatory and statutory requirements ensuring that Shell could respond to a so-called "worst-case discharge."
The groups argued the spill plans were based on Shell's assumption that it will clean up 95 percent of any spilled oil before it contacts the shoreline, which, in a statement released Tuesday, they said is a level of success that has never before been achieved.
Beistline's decision included a similar concern that had been raised by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which BSEE found to be a misreading of the plan. The 95-percent figure did not refer to an actual recovery estimate but storage capacity, according to BSEE.
Beistline said Shell included that language to satisfy a state requirement - not a BSEE regulation - and found the groups "misread and misunderstood" Shell's language.
Holly Harris, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented the groups, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that an appeal is likely though a final decision has not yet been made.
"Yesterday, the first court to address the issue said the spill plans were sufficient, but this is only the beginning of the effort to define the obligations to address oil spill prevention and response, especially in remote, isolated areas like the Arctic Ocean," she said in a separate statement.
Shell began drilling in the Chukchi Sea last year but suspended its program for 2013. The company experienced problems before and after drilling in 2012, including the grounding of one of Shell's drill ships after the season had ended.
Shell U.S. spokesman Curtis Smith said Beistline's decision validates that BSEE was thorough in its analysis of Shell's oil response plans. He said the company has made decisions yet on any Arctic activities next year.
"Future exploration plans for offshore Alaska will depend on a number of factors, including the readiness of necessary assets and confidence that lessons learned from 2012 have been fully incorporated," he said.
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