Environmentalists mount fresh challenge against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans

Environmentalists have opened a new front in their campaign to block Shell’s planned drilling in Arctic waters near Alaska, by challenging the government’s decision to issue the company essential air pollution permits for some of the work.

At issue are Clean Air Act permits the Environmental Protection Agency issued last month for Shell Oil Co.’s Kulluk drillship and support vessels, which the firm plans to use while working on exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas starting next summer.

Ten Alaskan and environmental groups appealed those permits before the EPA’s administrative Environmental Appeals Board on Monday. That builds on a similar appeal of the Clean Air Act permits issued for Shell’s Noble Discoverer that was filed in October.

The latest challenge was mounted by Earthjustice, representing another nine groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Alaska Wilderness League.

The group highlights the risks associated with drilling for oil — and cleaning up any spills — in slushy, remote Arctic waters.

“Drilling for oil in the remote and often dangerous waters of the Arctic Ocean, where 20 foot swells and hurricane force winds accompany months-long winter darkness, is being approved despite an acknowledged lack of basic science and preparedness,” the coalition said in a statement. “Were drilling to result in an oil spill, cleanup could be nearly impossible.”

Shell is proposing to drill four wells in the Beaufort Sea and six in the nearby Chukchi Sea over the next two years, beginning when ice clears next summer.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company is confident that its Kulluk air permit will be upheld, since it has already been subjected to a “thorough technical analysis.”

“Each approval in this permitting process is critical before Shell can begin exploratory, shallow water drilling next summer in Alaska,” op de Weegh said. “We have dedicated $4 billion and 5-years to studying, planning, and equipping a world-class drilling and contingency program. If we couldn’t explore these domestic resources safely and responsibly, we wouldn’t be there.”

Shell has previously cited its plans for tackling any spills and safeguards that it is planning to trim the risks of any accidents, including the use of redundant emergency equipment at the wellheads.

Federal regulators at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have already approved the company’s broad blueprint for the Beaufort Sea drilling, and are currently reviewing the firm’s Chukchi Sea plan. A federal task force also is evaluating the company’s oil spill response plans for the region.

Separately, environmentalists are challenging the Bureau’s approval of the Beaufort Sea exploration plan in federal court.

The air pollution permits have proven a vulnerable target in the past for Arctic drilling foes. For instance, last year, the Environmental Appeals Board tossed out permits as invalid and faulted the EPA for issuing them without fully reviewing potential emissions from a drill ship and support vessel. But EPA officials told lawmakers this year they are hopeful the new permits don’t suffer from the same problems and will withstand scrutiny.

Earthjustice EAB appeal of Shell Kulluk air permit