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Vol. 15, No. 19 Week of May 09, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Groups challenge EPA air quality permits for Shell Arctic drilling

On May 3, perhaps to no one’s surprise given the sometimes acrimonious debate around Shell’s planned exploration drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, an appeal against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval of Shell’s air quality permits landed in the office of the Environmental Appeals Board, the panel of judges with final authority over EPA decisions.

An appeal to the board is an essential precursor to any appeal through the court system over an EPA action.

Major permits

Shell hopes to use the drillship Frontier Discoverer to drill two wells in the Beaufort Sea and up to three wells in the Chukchi Sea during the 2010 open water season. The company has applied for and received EPA approval for major air quality permits for its drilling operations.

But the Native Village of Point Hope, the tribal government for the Chukchi Sea coastal village of the same name, has joined with eight environmental organizations, including Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (or REDOIL), to launch the May 3 appeal, saying that the drilling operations will cause “substantial air pollution” in a region where “rapid changes being wrought by industrialization and global warming are already straining the Arctic ‘web of life.’”

The permits cover operations by the Frontier Discover while the drillship is secured at a drill site in a configuration that enables drilling to take place. The permits also cover operations by vessels in the drillship’s support fleet, including icebreakers, oil spill response vessels and a supply ship, when those vessels are within 25 miles of a drilling operation.

Support fleet

And the essence of the appeal is a claim that EPA has not required best available emissions control technology for vessels in the support fleet, despite the fact that the permits do stipulate this control technology standard for the drillship itself.

“Over 90 percent of the air pollution from Shell’s drilling operations would come from Shell’s icebreakers and other associated vessels,” Pacific Environment, one of the organizations launching the appeal, said May 4. “However, the permits challenged yesterday would only apply control technology limits to Shell’s drillship, a relatively minor source of pollution from Shell’s operations, and not to these associated vessels and icebreakers.”

Shell, for its part, has argued that it has taken all necessary steps to limit the emissions from its drilling fleet.

“We have worked exceptionally hard to ensure our emissions footprint in the Arctic is as small as possible,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told Petroleum News May 4. “Even without an air permit in hand, Shell made the decision to retro-fit our drilling rig, the Frontier Discoverer, with best available emissions control technology at a cost of $25 million. That upgrade, combined with the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel on all of our vessels, means Shell is not only meeting emissions requirements for operating in the Arctic, but far exceeding them.”

When Shell originally planned a multiyear drilling program for the Beaufort Sea, slated to start in 2007, that program ran into as yet unresolved litigation over minor air quality permits for the drilling operations, in addition to an appeal against government approval of its exploration plan. The company subsequently scaled down its drilling plans and applied for major air quality permits rather than for minor permits.

—Alan Bailey



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