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Will Shell's request to revise EPA air permits stop its Chukchi drilling plans?

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published July 13, 2012

The lone Iñupiaq man who blew through his savings to join Native groups and environmental law firms to fight Shell Oil hopes the oil giant's June 28 request for revised federal air permits offers one more chance to stop Arctic Ocean drilling.

Whether or not that chance will come this summer is hard to say, thanks to confusing statements from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency on Friday would not respond to requests from the Alaska Dispatch for an on-the-record interview. The Seattle office did, however, issue a cryptic email implying that, as far as the agency is concerned, drilling will proceed.

"We are working with the company and are confident that using the tools we have under the Clean Air Act, we can protect air quality while providing the EPA approvals required for Shell to operate this summer," said an email sent by Suzanne Skadowski, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Perhaps as an indication of the topic's sensitivity, Skadowski said in the email that the statement is not to be attributed to her or anyone else in the agency. Instead, it comes from "the EPA."

Adding to the confusion was an email sent by Skadwoski the day before to Daniel Lum, the 39-year-old Iñupiaq former whaler who joined international environmental groups in a failed effort to stop the agency from issuing Shell air permits.

"Any proposed revisions to the Shell Discoverer permit" will require public notice and comment, said the email from Skadowski to Lum, which Lum forwarded to Alaska Dispatch.

That process would include a 30-day public notice period before the public comment period even opens, raising the question whether drilling in the Chukchi, which must end by September, might just end up off the table this summer.

A sliver of hope

That email gave Lum, a former polar bear tour guide in Barrow, something to smile about; maybe he'll get one more chance to speak his mind. "I have a sliver of hope that we can possibly stop the air permit," he said.

And it sounds like Lum needs all the hope he can get. He has supported a family of six on a single part-time job in Fairbanks while fighting Shell, unsuccessfully, for more than a year. A property manager at a storage facility, Lum said he kept his work schedule flexible so he could have time to dig into legal documents and permit applications and write meaningful responses to stop the air permits before the agency's appeals board.

Lum and the others lost. The agency issued final air permits to Shell earlier this year, for both drilling fleets and more than 20 ships total, allowing Shell this summer to move forward on plans to drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and up to two in the Beaufort Sea. Environmental groups and an Alaska Native group are now in court in the latest effort to stop Shell from getting its air permits.

Lum said he doesn't have the hundreds of dollars needed to join in that courtroom battle, so he's watching from the sidelines. "At this point, I can't even put two dollars together."

Lum, who's no lawyer, and is still hoping to finish a bachelor's degree in Iñupiaq language and Alaska Native studies, said he initially supported Shell's efforts to open a new oil frontier in the offshore Arctic.

Early on, some five years ago, its executives seemed sincere as they tried to reach out to the Iñupiat villages scattered across the Arctic, he said. He even once carted Shell officials around in an off-road touring van so they could visit Barrow's "bone pile," where bowhead whale carcasses are dumped to keep scavenging polar bears from invading town.

But Lum changed his mind when he read the company's oil spill response plan. He decided the resources aren't available to clean up a spill, and that such a disaster would destroy bowhead whales, seals and other subsistence foods the Iñupiat people eat.

"Everything that's important to us, our food, our way of life for collecting that food would be taken away," he said.

Lum likens the opening of the Arctic to the horrors brought upon the Plains Indians that followed the arrival of the trans-continental railroad and the commercial slaughter of the buffalo herds Indians ate.

"This is the railroad being built across our plains," Lum said of Shell's plans.

Frontiers of technology

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the Netherlands-based company has set the "gold standard" for exploration drilling in the Arctic. To prevent a spill, the company is hauling an unprecedented array of equipment to the Arctic, where it safely drilled several exploratory wells in the 1980s and 1990s before crashing oil prices, primarily, forced Shell to abandon its efforts.

These days, Shell has also taken unprecedented steps to reduce air emissions to the lowest level possible. That includes using engines that burn ultra-low sulfur diesel and going to great lengths to employ state-of-the-art technology to remove pollutants.

The problem now is that the technology doesn't exist that can remove the necessary amounts of nitrogen oxides emitted from a set of engines aboard the Noble Discoverer. So Shell is asking the EPA to lower the limit that the agency set earlier this year. Shell is also requesting that there be no limit on the ammonia that would also be released by those engines.

Environmental groups oppose the increase and say it would allow significantly more toxins to be spewed into the air. The revision would allow a three-fold increase in nitrogen oxides to be released on the Noble Discoverer, said Rebecca Noblin, with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. Shell also wants a tenfold increase in particulate emissions to be allowed for the Nanuq, a newly built spill-response vessel, she said. Noblin noted, by the way, that she also received an EPA email similar to Lum's saying that there would be a public comment period for any Noble Discoverer permit revisions.

Asked on Friday about the request for revisions related to the Nanuq, Smith said he was not familiar with them and that Shell officials were not available to address that question.

As for Shell's request for the Noble Discoverer, Smith said the amount of increased emissions from its set of engines would be "extremely tiny." And the emissions, overall, would remain well below limits set by the agency.

"There is still overall a considerable margin between what we can emit and what we will not emit," he said.

Great lengths

Smith said he understands, based on historical precedent, that there won't be chance this summer for public comment on Shell's requested revisions to the air permits.

Smith added that Shell has worked openly with the agency to regularly show that it has explored all known possibilities to find the technology to properly reduce the engine's emissions to satisfy the agency's limits. The agency is aware the technology doesn't exist, Smith said.

"This is not industry trying to lower the bar, this is industry working with the EPA to figure out what's realistic and achievable," he said.

Shell may have gone to great lengths, but that's not enough, said Lum.

"Shell's whole reasoning is, 'Look how much we spent,' " he said. "But that doesn't exclude them from these limits. And it doesn't mean we should yield."

Why does it matter how much air pollution Shell pumps into the Chukchi Sea air? After all, their drilling prospect is 70 miles northwest of the nearest community, the village of Wainwright. Most Americans would call it far from the middle of nowhere.

Because there's food out there the Iñupiat eat, said Lum. Air pollutants can settle into the ocean to be eaten by krill and other tiny organisms, and the accumulated poison can move all the way up to the massive bowhead whale.

"All those toxins go up the food chain," he said. "And we're the top consumer on that food chain."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)

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