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Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plan Clears Hurdle

By CLIFFORD KRAUSS: January 13, 2012

A Royal Dutch Shell vessel surveying for oil reserves in the Arctic in preparation for drilling. Photo: Shell Oil

Royal Dutch Shell has been on a six-year crusade to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast, and has spent about $4 billion on the effort so far without drilling a single well.

But the company took one more bureaucratic baby step forward this week toward drilling in the Chukchi Sea later this year. An appeals board of the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday rejected four challenges brought by Alaska Native entities and environmental groups like Earthjustice to block Clean Air Act permits covering airborne emissions from industrial operations.

Opponents argued that nitrogen dioxide emissions from drilling would pollute the air of Native communities, but the appeals board concluded that the evidence presented was not robust enough to support the claim.

Nonetheless, Shell faces more hurdles, including a possible appeal of the decision to the federal courts.

But since delays in the air-permitting process was a principal reason Shell did not drill last year, Shell executives have expressed cautious satisfaction with the new ruling..

Four weeks ago the company received conditional federal approval to drill six exploratory wells in Arctic waters, but environmentalists say they will press on with their appeals. They argue a spill in freezing waters would be a disaster for endangered wildlife and challenging to clean up because of the region’s harsh climate, ice cover on the water, strong winds and long seasonal darkness.

“We look forward to continued progress on the permitting front and remain committed to working with regulators and stakeholders to achieve all of the permits necessary to drill in 2012,” Shell said in an optimistic statement late Thursday.

Eric Jorgensen, an Earthjustice lawyer, said: “We’re disappointed. The E.P.A. cut corners in issuing the permit and we don’t believe it complies with the Clean Air Act.”

As for an appeal, he said, “We’re looking at all options.”

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