Environmental groups say they’ve found a fundamental flaw in Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer and they’re asking the government to rescind its approval. In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the groups say Shell’s plan to use two drill rigs at once violates a 2013 Fish and Wildlife regulation aimed at protecting walruses. The regulation says rigs have to be 15 miles away from each other during exploration work. The sites Shell plans to drill are just nine miles apart.
“Shell and the government may have backed themselves into a corner that neither can get out of compliant with the existing rules,” says Michael LeVine, a Juneau-based senior attorney with Oceana.
The government insisted on Shell using two rigs per season as a safety measure. That’s so one rig could drill a relief well in case of a blowout, and also to shorten the number of seasons needed for exploration. LeVine says requiring Shell to just keep one rig idle isn’t a solution.
“The plan that Shell submitted contemplates two rigs drilling simultaneously,” he said. “It’s not clear whether the government has or could approve a different plan.”
An Interior Department official said today the Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing Shell’s program to ensure it complies will all laws and minimizes any disturbance to walruses.
Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino says the company is still working with the government on the terms of the letter of authorization it requires to begin operations.
“All of our permit applications are based on sound science,” she said in an email.
Shell has received most of the approvals it needs. It has leased two drilling rigs for its Chukchi Sea work. The Polar Pioneer is already en route from Seattle to Dutch Harbor.
Environmental groups have repeatedly challenged the Chukchi Sea leases in court. The letter sent today suggests they haven’t given up.