EPA raps Shell for Arctic air violations

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday rapped Shell Oil Co., for violating the terms of air pollution permits governing emissions from its drilling rigs and support vessels operating in Arctic waters last year.

The agency issued two separate notices of violation alleging Shell ran afoul of the Clean Air Act permits governing its Kulluk drilling unit used in the Beaufort Sea and the drillship Noble Discoverer (as well as its support vessels) used in the Chukchi Sea. A fleet of vessels were in the Arctic as Shell bored the first half of two exploratory oil wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas last October.

According to the agency, Shell’s self-reporting of emissions revealed excess nitrogen oxide was released from both the Discoverer and Kulluk, leading the EPA to conclude that Shell had “multiple permit violations for each ship” during the company’s 2012 drilling season.

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Last August, the agency granted a one-year air pollution permit to Shell for the Discoverer and its support vessels. Shell had asked to be allowed to emit an unlimited amount of ammonia and more nitrogen oxide than originally permitted from the main generator engines on the Discoverer.

Shell representatives argued that the Discoverer would still satisfy ambient air standards for nitrogen oxide since the generator engines are not the biggest source of that substance. Even doubling the amount of nitrogen oxide initially allowed from the engines would not cause Shell to exceed overall limits for the ship, they said.

On Thursday, in response to the EPA’s violation notices, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said that the company has “made every effort to meet the permit conditions established by the EPA for offshore Alaska.”

“We continue to work with the agency to establish conditions that can be realistically achieved,” Smith said. “We are working with the EPA on the path forward for 2013, as we have already proposed necessary permit revisions as a result of ongoing conversations with the agency.”

Even if the Discoverer violations were expected, they provide fresh fodder to environmentalists arguing for a complete shut down of Arctic oil development. They come after a series of mishaps, including the failed test of a unique oil spill containment system last September, the drifting of the Discoverer in Dutch Harbor last year and the grounding of the Kulluk on an Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve.

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Mike LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, said the violations were evidence that “Shell cannot protect its own crew, our oceans, or clean air.”

“The company could not meet protections it had successfully lobbied to have watered down before the summer,” LeVine said. “It’s gotten so bad that we are no longer surprised by any shortcut Shell takes.”