* EPA temporarily grants looser emissions guidelines
* Preliminary drilling could begin this weekend
* Alaska environmental group cries foul over waiver
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Sept 7 Royal Dutch Shell on
Friday received permission to operate an oil drilling ship and
support vessels in the Chukchi Sea, even though the company's
activities there are expected to violate previously established
air-quality standards, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
EPA said it granted Shell a compliance order allowing the
company's fleet to emit pollutants at levels beyond limits set
in a major permit issued to the company in January.
Shell in June informed EPA that it could not meet
the limits in the permit. The company asked for a modification
in standards for nitrogen oxides and particulates, and for a
lifting of limits on ammonia.
EPA's compliance order, issued Friday, allows Shell's
Discoverer drill ship and its support vessels to operate during
the 2012 open-water season with loosened emissions limits. But
that reprieve is only temporary, EPA said.
Until EPA takes action on Shell's formal request to change
the permit for 2013 operations, the original emissions limits
"remain legally in place," the agency said in a statement. Any
formal permit changes are subject to public review, said the
statement issued by EPA's Seattle-based regional office.
Shell last week received permission from the Department of
the Interior to begin drilling in the Chukchi. However, until a
required oil-spill barge is on site, the company does not have
permission to penetrate oil-bearing zones.
Until the oil-spill barge arrives, drilling in the Chukchi
will be limited to preliminary work, boring to a depth of about
1,400 feet below the sea surface, company and Interior officials
said last week.
That preliminary drilling is imminent, Curtis Smith, Shell's
Alaska spokesman, said Friday. "It's likely to begin this
weekend," he said.
The Discoverer drill ship was being anchored in place on
Friday in preparation for drilling at the Chukchi prospect
targeted by Shell, Smith said.
Six support vessels are in the Chukchi with the Discover,
and the oil-spill barge, the Arctic Challenger, was still in the
Puget Sound area Friday, awaiting U.S. Coast Guard
certification, he said.
The Arctic Challenger is expected to start sea trials early
next week, Smith said.
Certification has been delayed because the Coast Guard has
not yet endorsed seaworthiness of the vessel.
Shell's Chukchi prospect, called Burger, is about 70 miles
Meanwhile, a separate Shell drill ship, the Kulluk, is
anchored away from the company's drill site in the Beaufort Sea,
Smith said. The Kulluk will not be moved to the drill site until
local Inupiat Eskimo whalers complete their fall hunt, he said.
The Kulluk and its six support vessels are destined for a
prospect called Sivulliq, about 20 miles off the northern Alaska
Environmentalists criticized Interior's decision to grant
permission for preliminary drill work in the Chukchi without
Coast Guard certification of the Arctic Challenger.
They also objected to EPA's decision to grant Shell a
temporary reprieve from its air-permit restrictions.
Issuance of the compliance order "is yet another sign from
the Obama administration that they are putting the whims of a
corporate giant over the future of one of our nation's most
valued natural treasures," Cindy Shogun, executive director of
the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.
"Despite Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's assurance that the
Obama administration will hold Shell's 'feet to the fire,' Shell
could now be polluting in our Arctic waters - after admitting
that they can't comply with previously-agreed-to Clean Air Act
regulations. It's as if Shell is being rewarded for
deliberately failing to play by the rules," Shogan said in the