Groups appeal Shell air permit granted by EPA

Alaska Native and environmental groups that hope to block oil drilling off Alaska's northern coasts next summer filed an appeal Monday challenging a federal air permit granted to Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

Earthjustice is asking the EPA Environmental Appeals Board to examine the air permit granted last month to one of Shell's two drill ships, Discoverer. It filed the appeal on behalf of 11 environmental or Alaska Native groups.

Earthjustice attorney Colin O'Brien said from Juneau that the Discoverer and a fleet of support vessels would emit tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, more than 300 tons of nitrous oxide and tons of other pollutants. The drilling rig, he said, is not just a boat with an engine or two.

"This is a fleet of vessels and a giant, floating industrial operation that dwarfs the collective emissions of the nearby towns," he said.

The EPA on Friday granted an air permit to a second Shell drill ship, the Kulluk. O'Brien said the groups have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the Kulluk permit.

A successful appeal to the board last year played a role in blocking Shell's plans for drilling during the open water season in 2011.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the appeal of the Discoverer permit was anticipated but should be denied.

"We believe the EPA conducted a thorough technical analysis before issuing this air permit, and we expect the permit to be upheld by the Environmental Appeal Board," Smith said by email. "The board already has a significant amount of information from the appeal last year, and they have the additional work now provided by the EPA for this final permit."

Shell wants to drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and two in the Beaufort Sea off the state's northern coast in 2012.

Arctic Ocean outer continental shelf reserves are estimated by the federal government at 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The state of Alaska, with an eye toward diminishing volumes of crude moving through the trans-Alaska pipeline, has pushed strongly for companies to develop offshore reserves.

Drilling is bitterly opposed by environmental groups that contend petroleum companies have not demonstrated that they can clean up a spill in ice-choked waters more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base.

O'Brien said EPA is ignoring the cumulative effects of offshore Arctic industrial activity that would harm the environment and the health of Alaska Natives.

Many of the same groups have challenged federal approval of Shell's exploration drilling plan in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.