House panel clears offshore oil bill amid Shell permit debate

It includes a provision that prevents challenges of platform or drill ship air permits to EPA's Environmental Appeals Board.

The bill’s advance comes amid wider GOP claims that the Obama administration is tangling oil-and-gas drilling permit requests in red tape.

Republicans cast Shell’s long and continuing push for EPA and Interior Department permission to drill off Alaska as emblematic of the need to speed up permitting.

A senior Shell executive, in testimony before a separate committee Thursday, complained that the company’s expensive offshore plans have been stymied despite careful environmental preparation.

“We have invested more than $3.5 billion in leases and in supporting infrastructure — equipment, support vessels, baseline studies, and workforce training — in order to take the first step to explore for oil and natural gas,” said David Lawrence, a Shell executive vice president, in testimony submitted to a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Alaskan oil development.

“We have assembled what is arguably the most environmentally sensitive and thoroughly responsible exploration plan in history. Yet, for reasons largely beyond our control, permits have not been issued,” he said.

But Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Thursday that the narrative of Shell battling needless bureaucratic red tape is inaccurate.  

In a lengthy letter to Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) ahead of the committee vote on the bill, Waxman says information he and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) — a top lieutenant — received from EPA paints a different picture that largely lays the delays at Shell’s feet.

Waxman calls the notion of a five-year delay stemming from actions by EPA and its Environmental Appeals Board inaccurate, noting in particular that EPA has acted promptly.

“[I]t appears misleading to suggest that Shell submitted an application to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas five years ago and has been waiting ever since. Rather, Shell has apparently pulled applications, modified its proposed operations, and changed its target drilling sites on numerous occasions in this time period,” the letter states.

“Every time Shell changed its plans, EPA had to adjust its assessment of the potential impacts on air quality and public health,” Waxman writes.

But Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Upton, said Waxman’s letter “misses the point.”

“The problem this bill solves is the permit ping-pong between regional EPA approval and EAB appeal. Shell submitted its first application for an air permit to explore Alaska's OCS almost five years ago, and today not a single well has been drilled because of the perpetual circuit of approvals, appeals, remands, and reapplications,” she said in an email.

“Constant appeals to the EAB stall the process and essentially force applicants to change their permit requests and reapply, as advised by EPA,” Marrero said.