Shell files "pre-emptive strike," seeks approval of process on spill plan

In what the company described as a “pre-emptive strike,” Shell asked an Alaska federal court for a declaratory judgment on the Department of the Interior’s approval of the company’s Chukchi Sea oil spill response plan, a company spokesman said Thursday.

“We’re not asking for the court to approve the plan but the government’s process in approving it,” company spokesman Curtis Smith said. “We believe any challenge to the approval will be on process, not the merits of the spill plan.”

The move is unusual. Smith described it as a kind of “pre-emptive” strike – but it is intended to get the issue before the court now rather than waiting for environmental groups to file actions in early summer, just as Shell is moving its drill fleet into place, Smith said.

Shell hopes to drill in both the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea. 

“We’ve already heard from environmental groups that we’re trying to stifle their freedom of action, but we’re inviting anyone and everyone to get into this. We just want to talk about this now rather than waiting,” he said.

The case was filed Feb. 29 in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage. It has not yet been assigned to a judge, and it is unknown whether the court will actually hear the request, Smith said.

Meanwhile, legal challenges by environmental groups over the approvals of exploration plans for both drilling areas and an approved air quality permit are pending in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Smith said. Shell has been notified that the appeals court will hold a hearing in the first week of April, he said.

As for the Feb. 29 filing in Anchorage, “We’re not sure this has ever been done before, but we felt we owe it to our shareholders and our Alaska stakeholders to give this a shot,” Smith said.

Mobilizing a small fleet of vessels for Shell’s Arctic drilling will cost the company “well beyond $400 million,” Smith said, and Shell has already spent about $4 billion in its efforts to explore the Alaskan Arctic offshore. About half of that was paid to the federal government for leases in the 2008 Chukchi Sea OCS lease sale in which Shell, ConocoPhillips, Statoil and Repsol acquired leases.

Smith said Shell is on schedule in mobilization of its fleet, which will include two drilling vessels and a variety of support ships including a tanker, a spill response vessel and ice-class anchor-handling vessels.

The Noble Discoverer drillship is now en route to Seattle from New Zealand after a brief delay when the ship was boarded by Greenpeace activists, Smith said. The second drill vessel, the Kulluk, is now in Seattle undergoing a retrofit of its engines and exhaust emissions system.

The spill response vessel will come to Alaska in April to conduct training sessions in Valdez, while the rest of the fleet will be underway in late spring or early summer.

Shell is already studying long-range ice forecasts for the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and decisions on which area will be drilled first will depend on conditions in mid-summer, Smith said.

11/11/2016 - 7:12pm