Alaska Natives and several environmental groups are protesting Royal Dutch Shell PLC's plan to conduct offshore exploration drilling in the Beaufort Sea.
The groups say federal officials should have allowed a more thorough public evaluation of the potential impact on the environment and the North Slope's indigenous people before allowing any drilling.
"We have tried to have questions answered about these activities and they haven't been answered adequately," Robert Thompson, a member of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, said Thursday. "This is our culture... We don't want to see it end because Shell Oil wants to make some money here."
Robin Cacy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, said approval was based on an environmental assessment of Shell's plan. She said a public review is not required.
Shell last month filed its exploration plan with the MMS.
Shell spokeswoman Terzah Tippin Poe in Anchorage said the company plans to drill three to four wells a year with a possible total of between nine and 12.
Poe said the company is working with regulatory agencies and Native groups "to ensure we operate in an environmentally sound and safe manner."
The MMS released its environmental assessment Tuesday. It says the project would not cause "undue or serious harm or damage to the human, marine or coastal environment."
Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing five Alaska environmentalist groups, urged federal officials to prepare a much more detailed environmental impact statement before allowing the drilling to happen.
Bowhead whales 'greatest concern'
The groups say that Shell's activity could harm the bowhead whales, polar bears, migratory birds and other area wildlife. The whales are listed as an endangered species.
"The bowhead whale is the species of greatest concern," said Deirdre McDonnell, an attorney with the firm.
The oil exploration work, particularly seismic surveys that involve firing underwater air guns to study rock formations beneath the sea floor, could spook the whales and force them further offshore, making it more difficult for Native hunters to take them, McDonnell said.
Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands is urging the agency to conduct a more thorough review of the drilling project's potential environmental impact.
"Our animals bypass our village migrating north and then south of us. We feel that there is nothing that can replace our food from the sea," Jack Schaefer, vice president of the Native Village of Point Hope, said in a statement. "The killer whale and the right whale migrate through here, and they are an endangered species. We have raised this issue yet our concerns are ignored by the MMS, as is clear this decision."
Shell returned to Alaska in 2005 and established itself as the company most interested in offshore oil prospects. The company spent more than $44 million to acquire Beaufort Sea exploratory leases that year.
The documents released Tuesday say some drilling and other work would take place in waters near the village of Kaktovik. Thompson, who is an Inupiat whaler there, said he is concerned that the offshore activity could hurt his village's whaling activities.
"The concern is can oil be cleaned up in the Arctic Ocean," Thompson said. "We depend on a lot of food from the ocean."
Poe said Shell is currently negotiating a "conflict avoidance agreement" with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Beaufort Sea Village Whaling Captain's Associations, as well as consulting with local Native communities.
Shell plans to start its drilling campaign this summer.