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EPA grants air permit for Shell oil drilling in Arctic

September 19, 2011 |  6:46 pm

BP Northstar Island 

If you're looking for a smog-free venue, one of the last places left might be the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the remote stretch of frigid water between Russia and Canada at the top of the planet.

To help open the door to offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, though, the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday issued a final air quality permit that will allow Shell Oil's Noble Discoverer drill ship and the rest of Shell's drilling fleet to emit more than 250 tons of pollutants a year into the Arctic air while looking for oil.

The permit is one of the last important hurdles Shell must clear before commencing operations next July in the Chukchi and nearby Beaufort seas -- the first significant offshore oil operations in the Arctic in years.

Faced with rejection by the EPA's environmental appeals board of earlier air pollution permits granted in 2010, the oil company has redesigned its drilling plan to reduce emissions of most key air pollutants by more than 50% from what was initially approved.

To do it, the company is installing pollution reduction controls on both primary drill ships slated for operations in the Arctic next year. Its two icebreakers also will be required to install equipment to reduce air emissions, the EPA said in its announcement.

Shell hopes to initially drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and two wells in the nearby Beaufort Sea, both off the north coast of Alaska.

"It's important to keep in mind that we canceled our 2011 drilling program for lack of a usable air permit. While we have more permits to achieve, this is certainly a milestone event for our program," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an interview.

The permit approval was greeted with disappointment in the conservation community, which has filed repeated legal challenges in an attempt to force a full-scale review of the impacts of oil drilling in the fragile Arctic environment, including an assessment of the risks of oil spills, before proceeding even with limited exploratory drilling.

"If we're going to consider moving forward in the Arctic, companies should be held to the highest standards, and government should be looking forward toward a vision, rather than granting piecemeal approvals," Michael Levine, senior counsel for the group Oceana in Juneau, Alaska, told The Times.

Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity said the EPA approval was "very disappointing but not surprising."

"Unfortunately, campaign promises notwithstanding, under Obama sound science and the rule of law take a back seat to political expediency," he said in an email.

The Obama administration has called for maximizing domestic energy development where possible, and Alaska officials insist there is no better place to look than in the offshore Arctic. The Beaufort Sea alone contains an estimated 8.22 billion barrels of oil and 27.65 million cubic feet of natural gas.

"This announcement continues the momentum we need to develop Alaska's true energy potential, create thousands of jobs and improve our nation's energy security," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said in a statement.

The air quality permit for the Noble Discoverer operations allows a significantly greater level of emissions than those applied for with the rig slated for operations in the Beaufort Sea; approval of that second permit is therefore also likely. "We have a draft permit for [that operation] and we're hopeful we'll see a final permit in the next couple of weeks," Smith said.

Federal authorities have not approved Shell's oil spill response plan, however, and that is likely the biggest hurdle.


Arctic offshore drilling plan cleared for Beaufort Sea

Appeals court rules against Arctic drilling plan

Shell outlines precautions for offshore Arctic drilling

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: British Petroleum's Northstar Island was one of the first near-shore drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea. Credit: BP