Shell collaborating with regulators over Arctic drilling

WASHINGTON — Newly released documents suggest federal regulators are collaborating closely with Shell as the company pursues a new round of Arctic drilling next summer, even though an underlying sale of the region’s oil leases is still in legal limbo.

According to meeting records and correspondence that Greenpeace obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Shell met with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management about its 2015 drilling aspirations at least three times in March and May, months before it formally submitted an exploration plan detailing its planned operations.

Read more: Feds reveal details on Shell’s Arctic ambitions

The discussions in the bureau’s Anchorage office also came as the agency grappled with its legal options after a federal court in January invalidated the environmental review underpinning the government’s 2008 auction of Chukchi Sea oil leases to Shell and other companies. In October, the agency filed a revised environmental impact statement for the six-year-old auction that boosted the predictions of how much crude could be harvested under the sold Chukchi Sea leases. Public comments on the revised analysis were due Monday.

The newly released documents confirm that the Interior Department agency has been working with Shell to help the oil giant navigate the regulatory process, ahead of possible drilling in the Chukchi Sea next summer.

“The meeting notes give the strong impression that BOEM is working with Shell to smooth over any obstacles to a quick approval of Shell’s 2015 exploration plan,” said Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols. “These back room meetings were happening even before the supplemental environmental impact statement itself was finalized and released to the public — and during a period in which BOEM was not officially allowed to accept exploration plans for lease sale 193.”

It is common for oil and gas producers seeking government approval of broad exploration plans and specific drilling permits to have back-and-forth discussions with the regulators. Drilling regulators also meet with representatives from non-governmental organizations, including those that oppose offshore exploration.

But tensions are heightened when it comes to Arctic drilling, in part because of strong environmental opposition to the activity. Critics say there is no guaranteed method for cleaning up oil from the frigid, remote waters and that any spill could devastate the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Although the ocean energy bureau is barred from approving proposed exploration plans or formally deeming them “submitted,” a federal district court said the Interior Department agency is still “allowed to continue to process routine agency paperwork” and review exploration plans.

“While BOEM cannot formally deem the exploration plan submitted, nor approve it, the courts have explicitly permitted the bureau to review it — a process that includes communicating with the operator to let them know if BOEM’s analysts need more information relating to something in the plan,” said agency spokesman John Callahan.

Bureau notes from a May 27 meeting with Shell suggest agency officials view the court’s approval of its revised environmental review as a given.

“Once the courts allow formal approval of plans, the earlier Shell and BOEM interactions will allow both parties to move forward efficiently and effectively in accordance with the regulations,” bureau notes say. “BOEM will be able to then initiate a 15-day review and deem the exploration plan submitted if warranted.”

The agency expects to issue a final environmental impact statement in February, with a record of decision codifying the Interior Department’s approach to Lease Sale 193 in March. Formal action on Shell’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan could swiftly follow.

That timeline coincides with Shell’s planning process, as the oil company is expected to begin mobilizing its Arctic drilling rigs and a fleet of support vessels in March or June.

Shell declined to comment on the matter.

A major question is how the ocean energy bureau will regulate emissions from Shell’s drilling rigs and support vessels in the Chukchi Sea. Although the Environmental Protection Agency previously oversaw Clean Air Act permitting in the Arctic, Congress has shifted that responsibility to the Interior Department.

Critics have viewed the move warily, saying BOEM was likely to apply less-stringent limits to the air pollution. The meeting records obtained by Greenpeace appear to confirm that approach.

For instance, during a March 27 meeting, bureau officials said they believed air emissions should be inventoried and modeled from drilling facilities — without including pollution from some support vessels and emergency equipment in the calculations.

According to meeting notes, the agency advised Shell “that a common-sense approach — clearly presenting information and good science — will go a long way towards helping the public and the agency understand and evaluate Shell’s air quality information and efforts.”

More than 200 comments had been filed with the government late Monday, hours before a deadline to weigh in on the revised environmental impact statement.

Christi Craddick, head of the Texas Railroad Commission that oversees oil and gas activities in the state, urged the bureau to quickly finalize the 2008 lease sale so drilling could resume in the Chukchi Sea.

“Oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea can and should be done safely, and it is past time to affirm Lease Sale 193 and allow exploration to proceed,” she said. “Offshore oil and gas development in Alaska will strengthen our energy security, create jobs in Alaska and across the country and generate significant government revenue.”

But Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and 30 colleagues from the House of Representatives urged the Interior Department to reject the 2008 lease sale.

“In light of the long history of legal disputes around this lease sale and the near complete inability to respond to an oil spill in this remote and sensitive region, we believe that no leasing should proceed in the Arctic Ocean,” they said.