Pollution emitted from drilling ships and support vessels in Arctic waters would be regulated by the Interior Department instead of the Environmental Protection Agency under language inserted into a spending bill by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The Alaska Republican announced the move Thursday and said it will address systemic problems in the EPA permitting process for offshore oil and natural gas exploration.
A subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell hopes to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas next summer on leases purchased in 2008. Shell's drilling has been thwarted so far by challenges that include appeals of air permits granted by the EPA.
Murkowski said in her announcement that the language inserted into the spending bill is one of the most important steps Congress can take to ensure that responsible development is allowed to go forward in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Shell, Murkowski said, has invested $4 billion in preparing for Arctic exploratory drilling and has waited more than five years for valid EPA operating permits.
The Interior Department, she said, processes air permits within months.
"Transferring air quality authority from the EPA to Interior could place Alaska's Arctic leases on a level playing field with the Gulf of Mexico and provide a level of predictability -- without compromising environmental protections -- for those companies willing to invest in the production of America's energy," she said in a prepared statement.
A Murkowski spokesman said the language was not intended only to help Shell but also other companies that want to drill on Alaska's outer continental shelf.
"The EPA process is broken, is Sen. Murkowski's point," Robert Dillon told The Associated Press by phone from Washington, D.C.
Colin O'Brien, an attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is representing Alaska Native and conservation groups in an appeal of Shell's latest EPA air permit, said there have been other attempts to limit the agency but not to shift its authority wholesale to the Interior Department.
"This is a brazen giveaway to Big Oil that ignores the impact of Arctic oil and gas activities to the detriment of nearby communities and the environment," he said from Juneau.
Interior's regulations do not address air pollution at the source and excludes support vessels that may account for 96 percent of an operation's emissions, he said.
"From start to finish, there's less analysis, less control, and Clean Air Act protections are almost completely eviscerated," he said.
Rebecca Noblin, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage, said by e-mail that Murkowski's tactic will significantly decrease oversight of air emissions.
"The fact is, Senator Murkowski is upset that the EPA actually requires Shell to comply with the Clean Air Act," Noblin said. "What she dubs `streamlining' is no more than an attempt to put air permitting in the hands of a department known for rubber stamping dangerous drilling projects. Our senator would rather pollute Alaska's air and threaten our health than say no to the oil companies."
The issue for Shell is not the process, she said, but following the law.
"If they just complied with the Clean Air Act, they would get their Clean Air Act permits," she said.
Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the company has worked closely with the EPA on its air permits and believes they will be validated by the appeals board. He accused organizations such as Noblin's of leaning on hyperbole and misstatements to make a case against Arctic drilling.
"Not only do Shell's proposed air emissions meet the Arctic standard, we are setting the bar," he said in a statement. "Shell has committed hundreds-of-millions of dollars to modifying exhaust systems on both drill ships and committed to use ultra-low sulfur fuel on our support vessels. We stand by the EPA's expert conclusion that our operations will not adversely impact the local air shed or local stakeholders."
Dillon said the oversight change language is in both an omnibus spending bill and stand-alone House appropriations bill and still must be approved by the Senate.
The other two members of the Alaska congressional delegation issued statements lauding the proposed change.
"This is a game changer for development in the Arctic," said Rep. Don Young. He said he had worked with colleagues on the same issue.
"After over five years of waiting on air permits and seeing billions of dollars spent while waiting on permits, I am as confident as ever that we will finally see production taking place in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas."
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he had pushed for the change with the White House and the Senate Democratic leadership.
"This is an issue of fairness and is long-overdue," Begich said. "Companies with projects in the Arctic are at a competitive disadvantage under the EPA. It's time to move all air permitting under the Interior Department."