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Shell Arctic Drilling: Alaska Protesters Urge EPA to Reject Permit Waiver

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In this Saturday, July 14, 2012 photo provided by Capt. Kristjan B. Laxfoss, a Shell drilling ship drifts near shore near Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, Alaska. The Coast Guard says an inspection of the Shell drilling ship that lost its mooring and drifted toward shore of an Alaska Island shows no signs of damage or grounding. (AP Photo/Capt. Kristjan B. Laxfoss) | AP

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — About a dozen Alaskans rallied Monday outside the Anchorage federal building to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to reject Shell Oil's request for a waiver of requirements in the company's air permit, which it needs to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean.

A rejection of the waiver is one of the last hopes drilling foes have to stop the company from drilling this year in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast. Shell Oil Co. also hopes to drill in the Beaufort Sea off the state's north coast.

A Shell spokesman two weeks ago said generator engines on the Noble Discoverer drill ship tested "slightly above" permit levels for ammonia and nitrous oxide. Curtis Smith said Shell would seek a compliance order that would allow the Noble Discoverer to operate this year in the Chukchi. He said the request would set in motion a review for changes to the permit for 2013.

Anti-drilling protesters said Shell should be held to requirements in the air permit granted by EPA.

"We're here to say Shell promised the communities not to do this," said Carl Wassillie of Alaska's Big Village Network. "Now we need this agency to uphold the Clean Air Act."

Earthjustice attorney Colin O'Brien, who represents groups suing over EPA's granting of the entire permit, said Shell wants a waiver for a threefold increase in the emission of nitrous oxide from the drill ship's main generators and a tenfold increase in the amount of particulate matter pollution from the Nanuq, Shell's principal oil spill response vessel.

The practical effect, O'Brien said, is 10-plus tons of nitrous oxide and more than 2 tons of particulates. Both can exacerbate breathing problems such as asthma, he said.

"EPA is faced with a choice: Give Shell a free pass, give it a special waiver in violation of its air permit and the act, or hold Shell to the letter of the law," O'Brien said. "We think if drilling is going to be undertaken in place as sensitive and special as the Arctic that the agency should respect the law."

Shell spokesman Smith said the company, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, does not expect the waiver to be an impediment.

"We have confidence this is something we'll work through," he said.

He also said the drill ship's generator engines are not the primary emitters for the project and that the ship would still meet ambient air standards.

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