SEATTLE — Adding to the troubles plaguing Shell Alaska and its drilling program in the Arctic, the Environmental Protection Agency announced late Thursday that it had issued air pollution citations to both of the company’s Arctic drilling rigs for “multiple permit violations” during the 2012 drilling season.
In a brief notice, the federal agency said the company could be subject to fines or other measures as a result of the violations. EPA officials said the problems were discovered during an inspection of the Noble Discoverer drilling rig and because Shell reported that it had exceeded nitrogen oxide emissions limits on both its drilling rigs during operations last summer.
Shell officials have known for some time that they would not be able to meet the stringent pollution limits set for the Arctic, especially the ambitious “best available technology” goals initially established for the Noble Discoverer in the Chukchi Sea.
Early last summer, Shell applied for a last-minute revision to its permit for the main generator on the Discoverer, saying it would likely exceed its limits for nitrogen oxide and ammonia on that equipment despite having spent at least $30 million equipping it with the best technology the company could find.
The EPA in September granted a “compliance order” allowing drilling to proceed through the summer and fall, and approved a modification to the Kulluk’s air permit allowing more leeway.
EPA officials did not immediately release the contents of the notices of violation and refused to answer questions. It appeared that Shell officials had been in discussion with the EPA throughout the fall about excess emissions in some categories that the oil company reported to the EPA with the goal of setting workable permit standards for the 2013 drilling season.
It was not clear whether Shell’s air emissions exceeded even the more lenient standards allowed under the compliance order, but the EPA’s statement referred to “multiple permit violations for each ship” during the 2012 season.
The agency also said it was terminating the September compliance order on the Discoverer.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said late Thursday that he had no details about the extent of the purported permit violations.
“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,” Smith said in an email to the Los Angeles Times.
“We are working with the EPA on the path forward for 2013, as we have already proposed necessary permit revisions as a result of ongoing conversations with the agency. We remain committed to minimizing the environmental footprint of our Arctic offshore operations.”
Michael LeVine, an Alaska attorney who filed suit challenging Shell’s air permits as part of the conservation group Oceana, said the brief notice “makes it clear that the company violated the terms of both permits.”
“Shell has proven itself utterly and completely incapable of providing the care that Alaskans and frankly all Americans deserve,” he added, referring to the long list of problems that have befallen the company’s Arctic operations -- most recently, the grounding of the Kulluk during a storm as it set sail off southern Alaska.
“It can’t protect its own crew, our oceans or our clean air. The shortcuts that the company has tried to take, and unfortunately our government has blessed, have come back to haunt the 2012 drilling season,” LeVine said.
The heads of 18 environmental organizations said Thursday that they had sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar calling for a suspension of drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Salazar has ordered an expedited review of Shell’s offshore Arctic operations.
“According to Shell’s supporters, the company developed the best Arctic drilling program ever crafted, but it nevertheless has had severe problems at every stage -- from vessel construction to deployment, drilling operations, and transit,” the letter said. “Suspending Arctic oil and gas activities will provide the time to carefully reassess whether and how offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean is possible or prudent.”