Shell marches toward Arctic drilling as EPA permits upheld

The Environmental Protection Agency’s independent appeals board has upheld final air pollution permits that oil giant Royal Dutch Shell needs to launch a controversial drilling project in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast this summer.

The Environmental Appeals Board on Friday rejected environmentalists’ challenge to permits the EPA issued for Shell to operate the Kulluk drilling unit.

“Achieving a usable air permit for the Kulluk means Shell has, for the first time, all of the air permits needed to work in the Alaska offshore,” a Shell spokeswoman said.

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The step comes 10 weeks after the appeals board similarly denied green group challenges to permits for operating the Noble Discoverer drillship. 

A number of parties including the Alaska Wilderness League, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the Center for Biological Diversity and The Wilderness Society had challenged the permits for the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer.

Shell has recently cleared several hurdles in its quest to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast.

Interior on Wednesday approved Shell’s oil spill response plan for the Beaufort Sea, which follows the February approval of the company’s response plan for the adjacent Chukchi Sea. 

But the company still needs other federal approvals — including Interior Department drilling permits — to begin looking for oil in federal waters off Alaska's coast this summer.

Environmentalists and some Democrats oppose the drilling plans, alleging that Shell and Interior have not adequately worked to prevent and contain potential spills in the harsh, remote region that’s home to polar bears, bowhead and beluga whales, and other fragile species.

A Government Accountability Office report made public Friday finds that drilling in the area presents environmental risks, despite Shell’s accident prevention and response planning and Interior’s toughened oversight since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Alaska’s senators — Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) — cheered the EPA board’s decision to uphold permits needed for Shell to explore in the Arctic seas estimated to contain as many as 27 billion barrels of oil.

“Today’s decision by the EPA’s appeals board brings us closer than we’ve ever been to proving up the vast storehouse of oil and gas off Alaska’s northern coastline,” Murkowski said Friday.

Begich called the decision a “milestone” for Shell, which has spent billions of dollars purchasing and working towards development of leases in the Arctic waters.

“With just a few permits remaining, we’ll continue to push for the clearance needed to make sure the long-awaited exploration can occur this summer in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas,” Begich said.

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