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Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell reportedly has paid more than $5 billion for offshore oil drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean and has accomplished little more than to demonstrate that industry isn’t ready to explore in the harsh conditions of America’s Arctic waters.  

The price tag went up this week as Shell was fined $1.1 million by the EPA for numerous violations of air pollution limits and other permit requirements that apply to its two drilling rigs, the Kulluk and the Discoverer. Those two names became familiar to many last summer when the rigs were commissioned to drill five wells in the Arctic Ocean floor but instead made news with mishap after mishap and, in the end, were stopped from drilling for oil at all because Shell’s spill response equipment failed spectacularly in testing.


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Many of Shell’s air pollution violations occurred because pollution controls failed in the cold Arctic weather. It goes without saying that cold temperatures should not have been a surprise in the Arctic. Likewise, Shell also violated its air permit because it was forced to use its main ship engines, contrary to what it promised in its permit, when high seas prevented safe connection to one of the anchor-handling icebreakers. These facts point to inherently but predictably difficult conditions that Shell simply was not prepared to address. To add insult to injury, Shell knew more than a year in advance that it would be unable to meet its permit conditions but waited until the last minute to apprise the EPA – which was then pressured to issue a lenient consent decree that Shell, in turn, violated nonetheless.

Shell’s response to its violations has been to request that the EPA further weaken its air permit for the Discoverer to eliminate the pollution limits and other conditions that it failed to meet. Shell has also suggested it may attempt to sidestep the EPA altogether and pursue authorization for its air pollution from the Department of the Interior, whose 30-year-old air quality regulations were not designed for the Arctic and have yet to be updated. Having been burned by Shell on several occasions, neither the EPA nor any other agency should authorize more drilling until the Administration takes a new, hard look at whether Shell is equipped to drill in the Arctic safely and in compliance with environmental safeguards, including robust air quality standards.  

The Arctic is home to iconic species such as polar bear, bowhead whale, and walrus and to a vibrant indigenous subsistence culture. Beyond being unprepared for  the treacherous weather and icy seas, and placing in danger the region’s communities and wildlife, Shell and its industry partners positioning to explore the Arctic for oil are placing all of us in danger.  More oil means that more climate-disrupting fossil fuels will be burned; and oil extraction from the Arctic poses a particular threat, as industrial operations there emit black carbon that coats and rapidly melts sea ice, worsening the climate-changing effect. It is time for President Obama to reconsider the decision to open America’s Arctic to risky drilling for dirty oil. Let’s protect this important region and take a needed step toward a clean energy future.

- Colin O'Brien, Earthjustice attorney

Colin C. O'Brien joined the Alaska office of Earthjustice in April 2011, having first worked for the organization as a summer law clerk at the Northern Rockies office in 2001. Prior to his return to Earthjustice, Colin worked as an associate in the New York office of Sidley Austin LLP, and then as a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Clean Air Project” in Washington, D.C. He also served as a law clerk for the Honorable Richard J. Cardamone of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. Colin received a bachelor's degree in political science from The Ohio State University. He is also a graduate of Yale Law School (J.D.) and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (Master of Environmental Management).

This summer, Colin was named “Conservationist of the Year” by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center for his work on air quality issues in northern Alaska. He represented a coalition of organizations challenging Shell's air permits before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  

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