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Feds move forward Shell's Arctic offshore plans

Patti Epler

Federal regulators are still supporting oil and gas development spread over millions of acres in the Chukchi Sea, according to a new environmental impact statement released Thursday.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has been embroiled in a lawsuit with environmental and Native organizations challenging Lease Sale 193, which covered more than 30 million acres off the coast of Alaska. Shell Oil Co. was the big bidder in that sale, spending more than $2 billion to acquire leases, and has been trying to get permits to work in the area ever since.

A federal judge invalidated the sale in 2010 and sent the review back to BOEMRE, ordering it to address several issues, including natural gas development and lack of science. The agency has now finalized its review of those issues and essentially maintained the same conclusion as before, that oil and gas development on the leases is environmentally innocuous and is not likely to adversely affect whales that migrate through the area.

The latest environmental impact statement is now online will be open for public comment as soon as it is published in the Federal Register on Aug. 26, according to the agency. BOEMRE is under court order to issue a final record of decision by early October, the time frame Shell has said must be meant in order for the company to put a drilling program in place for next summer.

The agency's action comes as the federal government appears poised to allow oil companies to move ahead with Arctic exploration, much to the dismay of environmental organizations who have vowed to file more court challenges as permits are issued. Earlier this month, BOEMRE issued tentative approval for Shell's Beaufort Sea exploration permit and the company is awaiting final word on air quality permits that cover both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Both Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and U.S. Rep. Don Young issued press statements applauding the release of the environmental review and calling it a step forward for Alaska's economy.

But conservation groups remain displeased with the government's willingness to let Shell and other companies drill for oil and gas in the Arctic especially in light of a recent oil spill from a Shell operation in the North Sea. They say the spill is one more indication that an oil spill in the Arctic would be disastrous and that the companies, despite highly touted response and cleanup plans, simply can't clean up an oil spill in frigid northern waters.

Several groups pointed to a U.S. Geological Survey report issued in June that concluded much information about the Arctic environment and its wildlife is unknown and thus it will be hard to decide whether and how to allow oil operations that might damage the environment.

Chris Krenz, Arctic program manager for Oceana, said the latest environmental impact statement continues to ignore the lack of science in the Arctic and downplays an analysis of what would happen if there were a large oil spill in the Chukchi.

"They're basically putting the sled in front of the dogs," he said.

Caroline Cannon, president of the Native Village of Point Hope, said in a prepared statement she is "haunted by the worry that an oil spill will occur in our waters."

"Shell's proposed oil and gas activities affect the very foundations of of who we are as individuals and as a people," Cannon said. "To risk our people for the profit of oil companies is heartbreaking."

Environmentalists have been keeping a close eye on a spill that occurred last week -- and is still seeping -- from a Royal Dutch Shell platform in the North Sea, about 112 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The spill is an "urgent reminder" of why the federal government should carefully consider the company's spill response and cleanup plan for the Arctic, Oceana Pacific senior director Susan Murray said.

Oceana pointed to what it said was a 300-square-mile sheen of oil near the Gannet Alpha platform as "just a snapshot of what could happen in Alaska's Arctic." About 55,000 gallons of oil is reported to have spilled there and while Shell plugged the main leak relatively quickly a smaller hole in a flowline buried in the sea floor has proved harder to resolve.

But Shell executives say people shouldn’t compare the North Sea incident to anything that might occur on the Arctic.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the Gannet Alpha leak "is not related to a well control incident nor does it correspond with the exploration plans we have for Alaska."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com