Permits? Now you see them, now you don’t …
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Facing pressure from shareholders to produce oil in the Arctic, Shell is pushing ahead with plans for exploratory drilling even though the company apparently can’t meet standards set to protect the environment.
Last week, the company said its drillship Noble Discovery won’t be able to meet air quality emission standards. Shell is asking the EPA to relax those rules, set to protect public health and the environment. Similarly, it’s not at all clear if the company can meet its obligations to clean up a spill with existing equipment.
With only a few short months left to sink those first test shafts, the only question remaining is whether the federal government and courts will play along with the corporate “Shell” game.
“Shell’s tactic of agreeing to certain standards to get a permit and then reneging at the eleventh hour is highly suspect,” said Center for Biological Diversity Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “If Shell gets its wish, the air standards that are in place to protect the Arctic people and environment will be wiped away without any public process. The EPA has a responsibility to the American people to hold Shell to its promises and refuse this last-minute waiver.”
In its June 28 revised permit application, Shell requested the EPA allow a threefold increase in nitrogen oxide emissions from the Noble Discoverer. It also requested a tenfold increase in harmful particulate matter emissions from its spill-response vessel Nanuq. Although Shell has known for more than a year that its drillship cannot meet the permit standards, the company’s ships were already Arctic-bound when it announced its intention not to comply.
Shell’s PR flaks responded with the usual verbiage, which isn’t really worth repeating because it serves only to disguise the facts in this situation: Shell has promised its shareholders and investors it will explore for oil in the Arctic this summer, and the company stands to lose credibility — and money — if it doesn’t deliver.
“This is strike three for Shell,” Noblin said. “In the past month the company has gone back on promises regarding oil-spill response, Arctic weather preparedness and now air emissions. The Obama administration should send Shell back to the bench.”
Although Shell’s oil-spill response plan relies on the company’s stated ability to clean up 95 percent of spilled oil at the source, Shell has recently stated that it will merely “encounter” 95 percent of spilled oil, not clean it up. And just last week Shell admitted that its spill response vessel Arctic Challenger cannot meet the required Arctic weather preparedness standards.
The U.S. Coast Guard is currently considering Shell’s request for laxer weather preparedness standards, and the EPA is considering Shell’s request to waive its air-quality permit. In addition, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has not yet issued Shell’s final permits to drill, even though the company’s ships are en route.
To add insult to injury, one of the ships this week slipped its mooring and started drifting toward shore in an Alaskan harbor, which raises a whole new set of questions. If the company can’t control its vessels in the calm, sheltered water near the coast, what will happen when they set up shop in the potentially rough waters of the Arctic Sea.
In a last-ditch effort to halt the drilling, environmental groups went to court one more time in early July, challenging the federal government’s approval of Shell’s Chukchi and Beaufort Sea oil-spill response plans.
The lawsuit claims the company’s cleanup plans are unrealistic, given that there haven’t been any meaningful tests of the equipment since 2000, when most observers deemed the response a failure.
Similarly, BSEE violated the law when it approved spill-response plans that do not describe all available spill-response resources. For example, Shell has publicly touted its Arctic containment system, but the spill plans approved by BSEE not only fail to include that system but also fail to explain why Shell expects the system to work in the Arctic Ocean. Nor has the agency ensured that the company is prepared for a late-season spill that could continue unabated through the winter. There is a very real possibility that winter sea ice could close in and shut down spill response, leaving a blowout uncontrolled for eight or more months.
BSEE also signed off on the response plans without a basic understanding of the consequences of the spill-response choices Shell made. The agency never considered the effects of Shell’s proposal to apply chemical dispersants in the Arctic Ocean, including threats to fish, birds, and marine mammals, among them the endangered bowhead whale.
As this lawsuit moves forward, we will continue to seek opportunities to work with local Arctic communities, governmental entities, industry and others toward a shared vision for the Arctic, and we will not be distracted or intimidated by aggressive or litigious actions taken by companies like Shell. Nor will we allow them to take shortcuts around established review processes and standards. We cannot allow the future of the Arctic Ocean to be risked on the hope that nothing will go wrong.”
The plaintiffs in this case are Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club and REDOIL, represented by Earthjustice.