EPA issues air permits to Shell for oil drilling offshore Alaska

The US Environmental Protection Agency issued final air quality permits Sept. 19 necessary for Shell Oil Co. to proceed with oil and natural gas exploration drilling in the Arctic offshore Alaska using the Noble Discoverer drillship and a support fleet of icebreakers, oil spill response vessels, and supply ships.

EPA permits assure compliance with air-quality regulations, but it’s up to the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement to authorize drilling.

The air-quality permits, issued by EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle, outline drilling for up to 120 days/year in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas’ Outer Continental Shelf, starting in 2012.

Public petitions for review of these permits must be filed with the agency’s independent Environmental Appeals Board by Oct. 24.

Shell’s exploration drilling fleet is expected to emit more than 250 tons/year of air pollutants, which required a federal Clean Air Act Outer Continental Shelf (OCS)/Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permits. The permits set strict limits on air pollution from these vessels.

EPA Region 10 issued similar OCS/PSD air permits to Shell in 2010. Alaska North Slope communities and environmental groups objected to those permits. EAB sent the permits back to EPA Region 10 in December 2010 pending revisions (OGJ Online, July 5, 2011).

The latest permits call for Shell to reduce its fleet emissions of most air pollutants, including fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide, by more than 50% from the levels outlined in the 2010 permits.

The reductions largely stem from new emissions controls Shell added to meet a new nitrogen dioxide standard that became effective after EPA issued the original permits.

Current permits also require Shell to reduce air emissions by using selective catalytic reduction and oxidation catalyst controls on two icebreakers, catalytic diesel particulate filters on the Nanuq oil spill response vessel and ultralow-sulfur diesel on the Discoverer drillship and support vessels.

In other air permits under consideration for the Alaska Arctic, EPA Region 10 continues to work on two draft air permits for oil and gas exploration that it previously proposed. Shell applied for an OCS/Title V air permit to operate the Kulluk conical drilling unit in the Beaufort Sea, starting in 2012. Shell owns the Kulluk.

ConocoPhillips applied for an OCS/Title V permit to operate a jack up drilling rig in the Chukchi Sea, starting in 2013.

Shell drilled multiple wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas during the 1980s and 1990s. EPA permits, along with other regulatory issues and legal challenges, have slowed Shell’s current drilling plans for offshore Alaska.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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