When Shell Oil Co. told federal regulators this month that its refurbished drilling ship couldn't comply with the air pollution limits it once said it could meet, activists seized on the revelation as an unexpected opportunity in their fight to close down Shell's quest to drill this summer in the Alaska Arctic.
Already Shell's mission has been delayed by lingering sea ice. It also is still working to get Coast Guard approval for its oil-spill response barge.
On Monday, a small group of sign-waving activists rallied in the drizzle in front of the Federal Building downtown. Their message to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Hold Shell to the pollution limits in law.
Maybe a dozen environmentalists and others gathered for the last-minute protest. "Protect the Arctic" one sign said. "My Home is Not for Sale" said another. Some carried messages promoting renewable energy.
The demonstrators were eclectic. One man tried to start a "no drilling" chant but couldn't get traction. A 10-year-old wearing a polar bear costume shook pompoms and said she was sad for the polar bears and seals. Tina Robinson, a woman known as Sapphire whose energy helped fuel the Occupy Anchorage movement last year and who is now with a group called Fish Not Bombs, contributed banners and salmon for lunch and Arctic animal puppets.
"We're asking the EPA to stand up and do what's right," said Carl Wassilie, a Yup'ik Eskimo who grew up in Seward but spent summers at fish camp on the Kuskokwim River. He said he now is coordinator of a grass-roots group in Anchorage called Alaska's Big Village Network.
At issue is Shell's air permit for the Noble Discoverer, a converted log carrier and one of two drilling rigs that Shell plans to use in the Arctic this summer. The ship captured headlines earlier this month after it dragged anchor in Unalaska Bay, near Dutch Harbor, and stopped close to shore.
Activists in 19 countries have been protesting Shell and its plans, occupying the office of Shell's chief executive in The Hague, shutting down gas stations in London and Edinburgh, and pulling pranks through a fake Shell website that became a social media hit, according to Greenpeace. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith, based in Anchorage, said he could not immediate confirm Greenpeace's descriptions.
The public cares about Arctic drilling and wants a voice in the decision on Shell's air permit, said Lindsey Hajduk, an organizer with the Sierra Club who works on its Arctic campaign. Along with various protests, environmental groups are delivering more than 360,000 comments to Washington, D.C., asking the EPA to hold firm, she said.
Shell says that despite spending $30 million to retrofit the Discoverer with multiple exhaust filters, the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel, and a custom-fit emissions control system, it cannot meet some emission standards in its permit. It is seeking an order from the EPA so it can drill this summer while it works toward a revised permit.
The EPA isn't saying much but indicated Shell will get what it needs to drill. Arctic drilling has been a priority of the White House.
"We are working with the company and are confident that using the tools we have under the Clean Air Act, we can protect air quality while providing the EPA approvals required for Shell to operate this summer," the agency said in a statement.
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski said in an email from Seattle that officials "don't comment on active or pending compliance or enforcement activities."
Shell says that overall emissions will be below the maximum in its current permit, finalized in January, and won't generate health or environmental problems. But within that cap, diesel-powered generators that run the drilling equipment will exceed levels set for them.
"The consensus was that these particular standards for these particular generators were not achievable with the current technology available," said Smith, the Shell spokesman. He said Shell is asking to go "slightly over" the limits.
"No vessel in the world can meet these if we can't," he said.
In June, Shell submitted its request to change the emissions levels; it ran 81 pages plus numerous attachments with technical diagrams.
Shell seeks to triple the amount of smog-producing nitrogen oxides emitted by the generators, to remove a cap on ammonia and to increase 10-fold the level of particulates -- dust -- emitted from an oil spill response support vessel, the Nanuq.
Those are significant changes, said Colin O'Brien, a lawyer with the environmental law firm Earth Justice who was at Monday's protest with his beagle, Tuck. Shell knew it was having trouble with its air emissions long before this summer, so the EPA shouldn't rush to accommodate it, O'Brien said.
"One could offer cynical reasons on why they waited until the last minute," O'Brien said. "But for the sea ice, they would be drilling right now. They've created a false sense of urgency because they withheld information until the last minute."
The EPA shouldn't allow drilling to go forward without a thorough review of Shell's request, including an opportunity for the public to comment, he said.
Shell says it began testing air emissions on the Discoverer in the Philippines in May 2010, then had to move the ship to Singapore that August to avoid typhoons.
The generator engines only passed all emissions limits once in more than 60 tests over three months, Shell told the EPA in its June application.
In the meantime, it kept working to try to improve the system, curbing emissions by 90 percent, Smith said.
"We have not been idle on this issue," he said.
No matter what happens with the air permit, Shell won't be able to accomplish all it hoped to do this season in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas because of the delays from thick sea ice, he said.
It hopes to begin exploratory drilling the first week of August and must be finished with this year's work by Oct. 31, Smith said.
VIDEO: EPA PROTEST IN D.C.