EPA Grants New Coastal Drilling Permits to Shell Oil

The Environmental Protection Agency has granted new draft air quality permits for Shell Oil Company to drill exploratory wells off Alaska’s coast. They’re up for public comment for thirty days, after which the EPA can grant the permits, moving forward on a process halted last year because of environmental concerns.

Shell says Friday’s news is a major step forward in their attempts to drill next year. Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith gave a statement:

“This is the news that we’ve been waiting for. The issuance of these draft permits keeps in motion a critical series of events that will ultimately determine our ability to drill in 2012. So it’s good news.”

The EPA had initially issued air quality permits to Shell last year for its plans to drill in the Beaufort and Chuckchi Seas, but environmentalist and Alaska Native groups raised concerns to the Environmental Appeals Board, which remanded the permits.

EPA Senior Policy Advisor for Air issues, Dave Bray in Seattle, says the new permits address the previous problems. He says they reduce the pollution Shell’s ice breakers can emit.

“When under the clean air act regulatory system the drill ships and support vessels would be regulated under the Clean Air Act, which was technically when a facility becomes an OCS source. And it all involves when they get anchors down, and when they’re at drill site. And so this permit now makes them subject to Clean Air Act regulations at an earlier stage in the process. Which was one of the concerns originally raised.”

Bray says the draft permits also address new standards that have come into place in the past year. But environmentalists say their early read of the extensive permits reveal problems.

Brendan Cummings with the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity complains the EPA’s permits are business as usual. He says new emission numbers are arrived at by “clever accounting.” Cummings says the EPA has been pressured by Alaska’s Congressional delegation and state officials to move forward.

“Unfortunately this whole process reeks of a fore-ordained conclusion. Shell and its supporters, Begich and Murkowski has put so much pressure on the EPA, doesn’t seem to be rationally weighing permit, instead it’s just come up with a document it hopes will pass muster and allow it to say yes to Shell.”

The public comment period on the draft air quality permits will end on August 5. EPA officials say any criticisms or challenges are limited to the changes made by the new permits, and can’t cover things already signed off on.

Meanwhile, a major component of Shell’s Arctic drilling plan is now bound for Seattle for upgrades. The drill rig Kulluk left Unalaska yesterday, after being moored there for nearly a year.

According to Curtis Smith, the purpose of the upgrades is to reduce the rig’s emissions by 90% in preparation for the 2012 drilling season

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