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Pressure mounts on EPA over offshore permits

Patti Epler

A bill that would clip the bureaucratic wings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sailed through the House of Representatives in a vote late Wednesday.

The measure, introduced and shepherded by Colorado GOP Rep. Cory Gardner through several hours of debate, passed 253-166, largely along party lines.

The measure is important to Alaska because at its heart it's aimed at speeding up the permitting process for Shell Oil and other companies wanting to work off the Alaska coast in the Arctic. Perhaps the most oft-repeated sound bite of the debate was that Shell has spent billions of dollars and, five years later, still hasn't been able to drill in either the Beaufort or Chukchi seas.

The bill, which faces a much less certain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate, would force EPA to act on a permit application for work in the outer continental shelf within six months. It also would prohibit the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board from considering challenges to Arctic air permits.

In Shell's case, it had applied for and was waiting for a number of different federal approvals last year in order to sink an exploratory well or two in the Beaufort Sea near Kaktovik. But the Environmental Appeals Board, acting on a protest brought by Native groups and environmental organizations, invalidated the air permit EPA had issued to the company for work in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. That was the deal breaker for Shell, which cancelled its plans for work this summer and is now hoping to get permits for up to six wells in both the Beaufort and Chukchi for the 2012 and 2013 open water seasons.

The White House opposes the measure.

It is similar to a bill introduced in the Senate by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and co-sponsored by a number of Republicans and a few Democrats, including Sen. Mark Begich.

Gardner, the Colorado Republican, fought back all attempts to amend the bill on the House floor, including from the Oregon contingent that wanted to use the measure to prohibit all oil and gas activities off Oregon's coast.

"Are we going to let a bureaucratically appointed boards in Washington, D.C. … stall an issue of national importance?" Gardner said, adding later: "This is an opportunity to get American resources online."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.