Alaska senators cheer as Shell moves closer to Arctic drilling

“I’m relieved that the EPA’s internal appeals board chose here not to drag out the process any further, and I hope that the permits for Shell’s second drillship, the Kulluk, are similarly confirmed in a timely manner,” said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) called the decision to uphold permits for Shell's subsidiaries “excellent” news.

“As we continue to push the Obama Administration to move permits and coordinate decisions that will allow us to use our own resources to fuel our nation’s economy and create thousands of jobs, I’m pleased to see the EPA give another key piece of regulatory certainty that Shell can work in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this summer,” he said in a statement.

Shell still needs other federal approvals before moving ahead with development of leases that it has spent billions of dollars to obtain and use, including Interior Department drilling permits.

Environmentalists strongly oppose drilling in the Arctic seas, which are home to polar bears, bowhead whales and other fragile species. They argue that oil companies will bring industrial pollution to the ecologically sensitive region and have inadequate ability to handle spills in the rough Arctic waters.

Earthjustice attorney Colin O’Brien, one of the lawyers who challenged the permits on behalf of Alaska native groups and environmentalists, told The Associated Press that the decision could be appealed in federal court.

“These permits pave the way for Shell to emit thousands of tons of harmful air pollution into the pristine Arctic environment, at levels that may be harmful to nearby communities and the environment for years to come,” he told the AP.

But Shell argues it has developed robust spill prevention and containment plans. A company spokeswoman lauded the appeals board’s decision.

“That our air permits for the Noble Discoverer withstood appeal is a testament to the robust nature of the work we have done to have the smallest possible impact on the Arctic air shed and further validates that Shell is a company uniquely-positioned to deliver a world-class drilling program in the Alaska offshore,” spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said.