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Lawmakers ask feds to step up scrutiny of Arctic-bound Greenpeace ships

by Jennifer A. Dlouhy: July 13, 2012

With Greenpeace activists planning to shadow Shell’s drillships in the Arctic this summer, some lawmakers want to know why the environmentalists’ vessels aren’t getting as much scrutiny as the energy giant’s fleet.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, today pressed the heads of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to detail their plans for monitoring Greenpeace’s activities — and how they might affect marine life.

“NOAA’s and BSEE’s analysis of (Shell’s) planned oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas has devoted extraordinary and unprecedented attention to the potential impacts of vessels and other activities,” the Republicans wrote. “Though the potential for impacts is similar, there has been no such analysis or permitting of the planned protest activities or the operation of the vessels participating in them.”

Greenpeace’s 237-foot-long ice-class Esperanza ship left Dutch Harbor, Alaska last week, en route to document conditions in the Arctic waters near where Shell plans to drill up to five exploratory wells this summer.

Jackie Dragon, Greenpeace’s lead Arctic campaigner, said the activists were “headed to the Arctic to show how little is known about this pristine ecosystem before Shell’s rigs move in to destroy it.” Dragon and other Greenpeace activists say the baseline data that will be gathered before Shell moves in is essential to documenting the effects of the company’s exploratory drilling.

Greenpeace plans to launch submarine research in the deep canyons of the Bering Sea, using the Esperanza as a platform for the work. Later, scientists on the Esperanza will use submersible vessels and acoustic monitoring equipment to document marine habitats, wildlife and underwater sound near Shell’s planned drilling locations. The submersible vessels that will be used for the work also will carry high-definition video cameras and robotic arms to retrieve samples.

Environmental activists have said they are finding new, creative ways to shine a spotlight on Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, following the company’s successful pursuit of a federal injunction that bars protesters from encroaching on Shell’s drilling rigs or support ships in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska. Violations would mean hefty fines and potential jail time.

Before it can launch drilling this summer, Shell had to secure authorizations to “harass” marine mammals and get other permits required by federal environmental laws. To obtain a required air pollution permit, Shell committed to using low-sulphur fuel while in the region. But most other ships traveling through Arctic waters — be they pleasure cruises or scientific researchers — don’t have to meet the same standards.

Generally, people can be held liable under the Marine Mammal Protection Act if their activities on the water involve hunting, capturing, killing, collecting or harassment of marine mammals and they haven’t previously obtained an incidental harassment authorization from NOAA. Greenpeace has not applied for such an authorization.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, noted the disparity during a recent forum in Washington, D.C.

“There is a great inequity between what we ask of Shell on ship safety in the Arctic region and what we ask of the rest of the world,” said Treadwell, the head of the Arctic Research Commission. “The ships passing through don’t have to tell us they’re coming, they don’t have to tell us what they’re carrying, they don’t have to tell us what their contingency plan is, they don’t have to meet the locals who might be helping them clean up (and) they don’t have to listen to us if we say please move away from here because we have whaling (underway).”

Murkowski and Hastings’ request asks BSEE and NOAA to describe the specific steps those agencies are taking to address any incursions by Greenpeace activists and other outside parties. The lawmakers also want to know whether “their planned disruptive actions (have) been reviewed in any way.”

The pair of lawmakers say Greenpeace’s activities “threaten the safety of offshore drilling operations and the workers.” And the work could unfairly limit Shell’s work in an already short summer drilling season, they note.

“Allowing intrusions by any group to disrupt or threaten federally permitted operations is a direct threat to the careful planning and safe operations necessary for these activities and puts in jeopardy those workers and our environment, as well as the subsistence interests of Alaska’s native people,” Murkowski and Hastings wrote BSEE Director James Watson.

Although BSEE oversees offshore drilling in federal waters, including the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the responsibilities for patrolling the area generally fall to the Coast Guard.

Dan Howells, Greenpeace deputy campaigns director, suggested Murkowski and Hastings were targeting the wrong people.

“If Sen. Murkowski really cared about protecting Alaska and the environment, she would be focused on stopping Shell’s Arctic drilling operations, instead of cheerleading for Big Oil and trying to block scientific research and peaceful protest,” Howells said.

A NOAA spokesman acknowledged receiving the letter. BSEE officials did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

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