House GOP aims to reduce EPA authority over Arctic drilling

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- Saying the Environmental Protection Agency's air permitting process had "run amok," House Republicans on Wednesday debated legislation that would make it easier for companies such as Shell to get permission to drill offshore in the Arctic.

At issue is the Environmental Appeals Board, an independent review body within the EPA with appeals judges appointed by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce committee looked at a bill that would exempt offshore operators from some Clean Air Act requirements, and curtail the authority of the review board.

It's that board that held up Shell's air quality permits to drill in the Arctic this summer, angering Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state's congressional delegation. They argue the company has jumped through enough regulatory hurdles, and that holding up new production hinders efforts to refill the trans-Alaska pipeline as output declines from aging North Slope oil fields.

Alaska would like to help boost the administration's goal of increased domestic oil and gas production, as well as be a part of ending the country's dependence on foreign oil, said Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the state's Department of Natural Resources.

"For five years, we've been waiting for a permit," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told the committee. "Your legislation is long overdue. The EPA is an agency that thinks it can thumb its nose at you, and not answer questions."

Native and environmental groups have fought to get the EPA to not only regulate emissions from any drill ship operating offshore, but also the helper vessels that will service it. The appeals board in December agreed the issue should have been addressed and sent the permits back to the EPA with the guidance that they needed more work.

A Shell executive said they don't believe the federal regulatory process has been up to the task of addressing the company's permits to drill in the Arctic. Since 2007, Shell has spent $2.2 billion on leases on Alaska's continental shelf -- in the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the northwest, said David Lawrence, executive vice president of exploration for the Dutch energy giant.

They've spent $1.5 billion on exploratory activity, research, science and seismic testing in the Arctic, Lawrence said. While they've been awaiting approval on one well in Alaska, the company has drilled 400 other wells worldwide, Lawrence said.

"This is perhaps the most difficult region I've ever been in, in any country, for working through the permitting process," he said.

But environmentalists and residents pushed back, saying that the appeals process was accessible to local communities, doesn't require a lawyer, and keeps matters out of the federal courts in Washington, D.C.

"If you allow this bill to move forward, you are telling me and everyone who lives in the Arctic that we -- proud Inupiats and Americans -- are less important than a few foreign-owned oil companies like Shell Oil," said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Barrow, who testified on behalf of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Since taking control of the House of Representatives, Republicans have aimed to work around many of the Obama administration's environmental rules. Young inserted language in a budget bill that would have done away with the appeals board entirely. The bill, passed by the House, failed in the Senate.