Environmental and Alaska Native groups will try to keep Shell Oil out of Arctic waters this summer by appealing an air quality permit that was granted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The nine groups have sued in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking judges to send the permit granted to the Shell drilling ship Noble Discoverer back to the EPA for reconsideration.
"We think EPA took shortcuts," said Colin O'Brien, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing the groups. "We believe the permit failed to ensure that all air pollution controls are in place and that all standards are met for this major new source of pollution in the Arctic."
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company and the EPA have worked to assemble strong, environmentally responsible air permits.
"Specifically, we have committed to retrofit our catalytic exhaust systems and use ultra-low-sulfur fuel on all of our vessels," she said by email. "We are confident in the EPA's finding that our emissions would not adversely impact the air shed. We remain uniquely positioned to deliver a world-class drilling program in the Alaska offshore."
Shell plans to use the Noble Discoverer to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast during the open-water season this year.
The company hopes to use a second drill ship, the Kulluk, to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast. Shell is awaiting an air permit for the Kulluk, which the company says could drill a relief well in the Chukchi Sea if the Noble Discoverer experiences a blowout and is disabled.
A successful appeal of previous air permits played a part in Shell's decision to cancel Chukchi and Beaufort drilling for 2011. In that case, the EPA Appeals Board concluded that an analysis of the impact of nitrogen dioxide emissions on Alaska Native communities was too limited.
The EPA Appeals Board rejected challenges to the current permit. O'Brien said the agency and the appeals board got it wrong.
The Noble Discoverer would be accompanied by more than a dozen vessels that would provide spill response and other support along the sparsely populated northern Alaska coast.
However, the EPA failed to consider the cumulative effects of the flotilla, O'Brien said.
The coalition challenging the permit includes the Alaska Native group REDOIL, or Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, and environmental groups Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.
The groups issued a statement claiming the drill ship and other vessels in Shell's fleet will pump tens of thousands of tons of pollution into Arctic sky, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate. They said greenhouse gases and black carbon from the fleet will accelerate the loss of snow and ice in the Arctic due to climate warming.
O'Brien said the appeal was filed late Friday even though U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, previously inserted language into a spending bill that will shift regulation of pollution emitted from drilling ships and support vessels in Arctic waters from the EPA to the Interior Department. Shell's permit was pending at the time, O'Brien said, and if the court finds it flawed, it should be EPA's obligation to fix it.
Shell spent $2.1 billion in Chukchi Sea leases at the federal government's lease sale in 2008. The company estimates it has spent more than $4 billion on offshore petroleum development in the Chukchi and the Beaufort.
The federal government estimates there are 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic Ocean's outer continental shelf reserves.