EPA issues Shell air pollution violation notices

January 11, 2013 11:27:49 AM PST
Two Royal Dutch Shell PLC ships operating in the Arctic emitted excessive amounts of air pollution during drilling operations last summer off Alaska's northern coastline, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal agency announced Thursday that it issued Shell notices of air quality violations coming from its drill rig and drill ship during what was a shortened Arctic drilling season of about two months. Shell's drill rig Kulluk and drill ship Noble Discoverer emitted excessive amounts of nitrogen oxide. There were multiple violations for each ship, the agency said.

The Kulluk made news when it grounded New Year's Eve near Kodiak Island as it was being towed to Seattle for maintenance and broke free in a storm. The drill rig has been refloated and taken to a sheltered harbor where it is being examined for damage. The drill ship Noble Discoverer remains in Seward after the Coast Guard found safety problems with it.

Shell has worked for years with the EPA on its air permit to operate in the Arctic. The problem is the allowable amounts of nitrogen oxide set by the federal Clean Air Act. The federal agency is reviewing Shell's November 2012 application to amend the Discoverer's air permit for operation in the Chukchi Sea.

EPA has since notified the company it needs more information. The agency said a revised permit could be available for public comment early this year.

"We have made every effort to meet the permit conditions established by the EPA for offshore Alaska, and we continue to work with the agency to establish conditions that can be realistically achieved," Shell said in a statement Friday.

Shell said its proposed permit revisions are necessary for drilling in the Arctic.

EPA said issuing a notice of violation is "a common first step," and the agency will continue to work with Shell to bring its ships into compliance with the air permit. Next steps in the compliance process can include a consent decree for penalties, orders to correct violations and possible mitigation measures.

Earlier this week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced his department will conduct an expedited assessment of offshore drilling in the Arctic last summer. The review, he said, will pay special attention to challenges that Shell encountered with the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer, as well as Shell's oil spill response vessel barge.

The barge could not obtain certification in time for what was to be a longer drilling season.

Salazar said the administration is committed to exploring potential energy resources in frontier areas such as the Arctic, but also recognizes that the "unique challenges posed by the Arctic environment demand an even higher level of scrutiny."