Shell Oil has been ordered to halt its exploratory drilling program off the north coast of Alaska until a court hearing can be held on the possible environmental impact of the venture.
The order came on Thursday from the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
It comes after the US Minerals Management Service in February approved Shell's offshore exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said on Friday that company officials are obviously disappointed.
Shell was the high bidder in two recent lease sales for offshore tracts in the Arctic. In 2005, Shell Exploration & Production Co, part of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, spent more than US$44 million for offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea.
In April, the company intensified its program by bidding US$39 million for offshore leases, including more than US$14 million for Flaxman Island northwest of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The plan submitted by Shell Offshore Inc proposed to drill up to 12 exploration wells on 12 tracts over three years, including four exploration wells this summer.
That prompted the North Slope Borough, several conservation groups and a grassroots group of American Indians and Alaska Natives to file a lawsuit.
Shell more recently was issued air quality control draft permits to operate a drilling platform and drilling vessel on the western side of Camden Bay. The company has not done any actual work on the slope, however, Curtis said.
Conservation groups contend that MMS approved Shell's plan without fully looking at the harm it could do. They are concerned that offshore drilling, particularly if there was a large spill, would be catastrophic to marine mammals.
Polar bears could also be harmed, said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners.
"Polar bears are already threatened by global warming," he said. "Opening up some of their most important habitat in the United States to oil drilling and development would push them ever further down the path to extinction."
The court ordered Shell to stop the program until an Aug. 14 hearing in San Francisco.
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