Alaska editorial: One down

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

It’s looking more likely that Shell will drill for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas next summer.

That’s good news for Alaska and the country in terms of jobs, domestic energy production, state income and a pipeline running closer to full.

Shell has received an air quality permit from the Environmental Protection Agency for its drilling rig Noble Discovery, which has been retrofitted to burn low-sulfur diesel fuel. Another rig bound for the Arctic, the Kulluk, is in a Seattle shipyard undergoing similar work.

There’s a 30-day period during which any individual or organization can appeal the permit decision. Another appeal like the last, which delayed drilling for 2011, is almost certain, but Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company is confident it has satisfied requirements for the use of best-available technology and expects to win any appeal.

Even with that, drilling is not a lock. Shell still needs to pass final muster with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement with a final, detailed drilling plan, and must obtain letters of authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Those letters allow Shell incidental contact with marine mammals and other wildlife — and contact means any action that influences marine life, even minimally.

Shell’s exploratory drilling plans have been vetted, appealed, revised and re-vetted; the company has gone to considerable lengths to accommodate safety and environmental concerns. And there’s more to come before the green light for 2012.

Yes, questions remain. Yes, there will be risk. But Shell can settle questions of its commitment to best practices with performance in its 2012 operation — performance that will give monitors a better idea of its skill and determination in cutting the risk.

Safe and sound exploration methods should build confidence for eventual safe and sound production — and that is years away and will require a whole new round of permitting. First, let’s see what’s out there, beginning next summer.

Shell should get the chance to meet the challenge in the Arctic.

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