EPA appeals panel is accused of thwarting Arctic drilling

McClatchy NewspapersApril 13, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Saying the Environmental Protection Agency's air-permitting process has "run amok," House Republicans on Wednesday debated legislation that would make it easier for companies such as Shell to get permission to drill offshore in the Arctic region.

At issue is the Environmental Appeals Board, an independent review body within the EPA with appeals judges appointed by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee looked at a bill that would exempt offshore operators from some Clean Air Act requirements and curtail the authority of the review board.

The board has held up Shell's air-quality permits to drill in the Arctic this summer, angering Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state's congressional delegation. They argue that the company has jumped through enough regulatory hoops and that holding up new production hinders efforts to refill the trans-Alaska pipeline as output declines from aging North Slope oil fields.

Alaska would like to help meet the Obama administration's goal of increased domestic oil and gas production, as well as be a part of ending the country's dependence on foreign oil, said Dan Sullivan, the commissioner of the state's Department of Natural Resources.

"For five years, we've been waiting for a permit," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told the committee. "Your legislation is long overdue. The EPA is an agency that thinks it can thumb its nose at you and not answer questions."

The Environmental Appeals Board primarily hears appeals of permit or civil-penalty decisions. Its main role is to resolve controversies about the application of federal environmental laws between the public — or private or governmental entities — and the EPA. An appeal doesn't require a lawyer or money, so it's one way ordinary people can protest decisions.

Native and environmental groups have fought to get the EPA to regulate emissions not only from any drill ship that operates offshore but also from the helper vessels that will service it, and they appealed the EPA's decision to grant the Shell permits. The appeals board agreed in December that the issue should have been addressed and sent the permits back to the EPA with the guidance that they needed more work.

A Shell executive told the subcommittee Wednesday that he didn't think the federal regulatory process has been up to the task of addressing the company's permits to drill in the Arctic. Since 2007, Shell has spent $2.2 billion on leases on Alaska's continental shelf — in the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the northwest, said David Lawrence, the executive vice president of exploration for the Dutch energy giant.

The company has spent $1.5 billion on exploratory activity, research, science and seismic testing in the Arctic, Lawrence said. While it's been awaiting approval on one well in Alaska, the company has drilled 400 other wells worldwide, Lawrence said.

"This is perhaps the most difficult region I've ever been in, in any country, for working through the permitting process in Alaska," he said.

Environmentalists and residents pushed back, saying that the appeals process is accessible to local communities, doesn't require a lawyer and keeps matters out of the federal courts in Washington.

"If you allow this bill to move forward, you are telling me and everyone who lives in the Arctic that we — proud Inupiats and Americans — are less important than a few foreign-owned oil companies like Shell Oil," said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Barrow, who testified on behalf of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, they've aimed to work around many of the Obama administration's environmental rules. Young inserted language in a budget bill that would have done away with the appeals board entirely. The bill, which the House passed, failed in the Senate.

In the most recent budget negotiations, House Republicans passed legislation that takes the delisting of wolves as an endangered species out of the administration's hands, worked to handcuff the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and cut off funding for an inventory of wild lands that they think will result in more public land being exempt from mineral, oil and gas exploration.

Congress might need to take a look at some of the ambiguities in the permitting process, acknowledged the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Henry Waxman of California. But "extensive and open" input on air quality concerns is central to the EPA's decision-making, he said, and should remain a priority.

No one from the EPA testified at the hearing, and Democrats asked for an additional day of testimony, saying the hearing was so hastily put together that it gave the federal agency no time to prepare.

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