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Shell may face new Alaska battle

Environmental groups are considering a challenge to a set of permits issued to Royal Dutch Shell this week for oil drilling projects off the coast of Alaska, reports have said.

Bill Lehane and news wires 21 September 2011 12:25 GMT

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Monday it had approved the air quality permits for the Anglo-Dutch supermajor to operate the Discoverer drillship and supporting vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas starting in 2012.

Environmental groups now say they are reviewing the EPA permits to determine whether to file a challenge with the agency’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), according to Dow Jones.

If ultimately successful, the permits would mark a major milestone in Shell’s years-long effort to drill off the coast of Alaska after permit requirements and challenges from tribal and environmental groups stymied the projects.

Loss of similar permits in a battle with environmentalists and Alaska native groups last winter forced Shell to abandon its plan to drill this year.

It is unclear whether a fresh appeal would force Shell to delay its latest plans to begin drilling by July 2012.

Erik Grafe, an Alaska-based staff attorney with Earthjustice, told the wire service tribal and environmental groups had not yet decided to appeal, but added that any appeals process could stretch into early next year.

“Until the petition is adjudicated, Shell does not have a final air permit”, Grafe said.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the timing for a possible appeal process would be up to the EAB.

“With this final permit, we feel the EPA has adequately addressed the very specific points that were challenged when the permit was previously remanded back to the EPA”, op de Weegh said.

Center for Biological Diversity senior staff attorney Brendan Cummings, one of the groups that challenged the earlier permits, told Reuters on Monday that all signs were that the group would appeal the new permits.

“The fact that these permits were struck down by the EAB last year forced them so do some things that will reduce pollution. But not really as much as they could and should and we believe that the law requires them to do”, he said.

In addition to the air quality permits from EPA, Shell also has to obtain approvals and permits from other federal agencies.

Since 2005, Shell has spent more than $3.5 billion on its Alaska exploration programme, mostly for leases in the lightly explored Chukchi, off northwestern Alaska, and the Beaufort, off the state’s northern coast.

But the company has yet to drill a single well on those properties because of adverse court rulings and offshore policy changes prompted by last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Published: 21 September 2011 12:25 GMT

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