EPA board stops Shell's Arctic clean air permits

Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2011

ANCHORAGE — Alaska Native and conservation groups have succeeded in challenging clean air permits granted to Shell Oil to drill exploration wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Shell hopes to drill one exploratory well in the Beaufort this summer and perhaps proceed with plans to drill in the Chukchi if legal challenges to the leases there can be resolved.

But Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said without the clean air permits the company can’t proceed with its drilling plans in 2011.

Numerous groups alleged that Shell’s permits granted by the Environmental Protection Agency would allow Shell to emit tons of pollutants into the Arctic environment from a drill ship and support vessels.

The federal Environmental Appeals Board, which is part of the EPA, reviewed the permits. It found last week the analysis of the impact of nitrogen dioxide emissions from the ships on Alaska Native communities was too limited, and remanded the permits so that problems cited by the board could be fixed by the agency.

“This decision confirms that the Obama administration rushed Shell’s permits through the system without considering the true environmental effects. It’s time for the administration to take a step back and rethink this foolhardy rush to drill in the fragile Arctic ocean,” Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Monday.

The center, along with Earthjustice on the behalf of several conservation groups and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, requested the review of the permits.

The groups alleged that pollutants resulting from Shell’s exploration drilling will harm Inupiat people and wildlife while contributing to climate change.

Shell already has decided to retrofit its drilling ship with the best available emissions control technology at a cost of $25 million, the company has said. The EPA also is requiring that the drilling ship burn ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel to reduce emissions.

Smith said the board’s ruling was “very disappointing” given the amount of time and resources the company has committed so that the drilling operation would have minimal impact on air quality in the Arctic.

A subsidiary, Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc., in 2008 paid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi. Shell wants to drill three exploratory wells.

Shell proposes exploratory drilling in open water using a drill ship, an ice management vessel, an ice class anchor handling vessel, and oil spill response vessels.

The closest proposed drill site is 60 miles off shore and about 80 miles from Wainwright, an Inupiat Eskimo village 710 miles northwest of Anchorage.

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