Climate

Shell Oil Tries, Fails To Pre-Emptively Sue Environmental Groups Over Arctic Drilling

CREDIT: AP Photo / Paul Sakuma

Royal Dutch Shell attempt to start an office of pre-crime will not be getting off the ground, the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Whether or not the oil giant was inspired by Minority Report — the Tom Cruise scifi film where law officers use advanced methods to arrest people for crimes they have yet to commit — is unknown. But they certainly tried to ape the model. Two years ago, Shell preemptively sued a raft of environmental groups in an effort to cut them off from suing the company to derail its plans to drill in the arctic. On Wednesday, the court dryly called Shell’s legal strategy “novel,” and then threw it out as unconstitutional, the Los Angeles Times reported. (Roughly the same thing ultimately happened in the movie.)

The three-judge panel ruled that “Shell may not file suit solely to determine who would prevail in a hypothetical suit between the environmental groups” and the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), one of the federal agencies that oversees offshore drilling.

Shell has battled both environmental groups and the unforgiving elements of the Arctic for eight years — and at a cost of $8 billion — in a so-far-failed endeavor to drill in the waters north of Alaska. The company aborted plans to drill in 2013 and then again in 2014 following a string of disasters in both instances, most famously when one of its major oil rigs — the Kulluk — ran aground on New Year’s Eve of 2012. Many of Shell’s permits are set to expire in 2017, after which it would no longer be able to continue its efforts. In October, a Freedom of Information Act request by the environmental group Oceana revealed that Shell had requested that the federal government pause the clock on its leases, effectively giving it another five years to drill.

The leases under review in the 9th Circuit Case specifically were issued more recently, in 2011 and 2012, after the BSEE approved the company’s contingency plans in the case of an oil spill. Shell then promptly filed three separate lawsuits against 13 different environmental groups in federal court in Anchorage, Alaska. The company asserted the groups were certain to challenge those approved permits, and that the Declaratory Judgment Act gave the company the right to demand that a court declare them legal.

Wednesday’s ruling dismissed one of the three lawsuits. The other two were dismissed previously, though one of those is under appeal.

“We believe this was a legitimate use of the Declaratory Judgment Act,” said Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman. “However, we respect the court’s ruling.”

Needless to say, the environmental groups did not share Shell’s interpretation. “Shell’s waste of time, energy and money on these lawsuits further reinforces the problem with its Arctic Ocean exploration program,” said Michael LeVine, the Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, which was also one of the environmental groups named in the oil company’s lawsuit. LeVine called the Court’s ruling “good news for the oceans and for those of us who believe in the rule of law and our ability to speak out for what we believe in.”

“As multiple accidents have already shown, Shell’s drilling plans in the Arctic are severely flawed,” added Chuck Clusen, the director of national parks and Alaska projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council, another one of the groups Shell targeted. “Shell is not equipped to handle offshore drilling in some of the world’s most treacherous waters, and we’ll continue to do all we can to stop them from endangering the precious wildlife and local fishing economies that they’re putting at risk.”