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Shell asks courts to accelerate spill plan suits

March 9th 3:34 am | Carey Restino

In an unusual legal move, Shell Alaska has requested that a federal court push the fast-forward button on any potential suits against the oil company’s Arctic Spill Response Plan.

The plan, which was approved by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in February, is a big step forward in the regulatory process for Shell, which hopes to drill in the Beaufort and Chuckchi seas this summer.

Shell’s request asks that a list of organizations, including the Sierra Club, Green Peace and The Alaska Wilderness League, speak now or forever hold their peace, essentially.

“We are seeking to have the court consider sooner rather than later any and all arguments related to the approval of the spill response plan,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. “We are in no way attempting to stifle opposition.”

Dan Ritzman, northwest and Alaska regional director for the Sierra Club, questioned the move, however.

“This is an inappropriate move by Shell to bully public interest groups into court and limit the opportunity for review of their plans,” Ritzman said. “Drilling in the Arctic is dangerous and risky. We do not want to see an oil spill disaster like the BP Gulf oil spill or the Exxon Valdez in the Arctic seas.”

Ritzman said the Sierra Club has yet to decide if it will challenge the spill plan legally, and is still reviewing the lengthy document.

“There remains serious questions about Shell’s ability to clean up an oil spill,” he said. “Rushing to drill, even if it is unsafe, will only benefit Shell — not Alaskans and not Americans who are feeling the pain at the pump.”

But Smith said Shell has an obligation to try to pursue the leases it holds in the Arctic and the company is moving ahead with plans to drill exploratory wells this summer as it waits for final permit approvals.

“We’ve waited five years and invested $4 billion,” he said. “We owe it to our shareholders to do whatever we can to move forward.”

Shell plans to drill two wells in the Beaufort Sea and three in the Chuckchi Sea this summer, pending approval of the final permits. Critics have pointed out that a well cap specified in the spill response plan has not yet been tested and thus far only exists on paper. Smith said the cap and containment system is currently being fabricated in the Lower 48 and is on track to be deployed for regulators in Puget Sound this spring. Smith said the cap is similar to the one that capped the blown well in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“The problem was that there was not a ready-made system like this in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

That drilling could start as soon as July 15 – the beginning of the open water season.

All this comes as more and more national attention is focused on the Arctic (See related story, Page 1), with U.S. Sen. Mark Begich declaring victory over a what he called a “regulatory whack-a-mole” process by federal bureaucrats.

“For the first time in a generation, I believe we’ll see exploration in the Arctic this summer,” Begich said during an address to the Alaska Legislature on Monday. “Let me repeat that: there will be oil development in Alaska’s (Outer Continental Shelf) this summer.”

According to Smith, Shell is moving forward with drilling plans. One drill rig, the Kulluk, is in Seattle. The other, the Noble Discoverer, is currently traveling from New Zealand. The rigs take just shy of a month to reach the Arctic, and plans are currently being made to stage the rigs in Unalaska.

Smith said Shell welcomed news that the U.S. Coast Guard would be increasing its presence in the Arctic substantially this summer, with a base, at least one ship, and infrastructure based near drilling operations, if they were to move forward. Though the spill response plan was put together without any expectation of Coast Guard support, Smith said it will be a tremendous asset.

As for the court action, Shell is still waiting to hear if the court will take its case for accelerated action. If not, Smith said the company is confident its oil spill response plan will be upheld, regardless of when any such suits are heard.

Ritzman, said, however, that drilling in the Arctic continues to raise concerns.

“The Chukchi and Beaufort seas are irreplaceable natural treasures that deserve care and protection for future generations,” he said.

Calls to several other organizations listed in the request for declaratory judgment were not returned by press time.

Carey Restino can be reached at [email protected].


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