One thing that’s odd about this is that the issue for the EPA is the icebreaking ship. The Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north coast is covered with sea ice more than 10 months out of the year. For 6-8 weeks in August and September each year, the ice recedes, leaving an un-iced area up to 70 miles from the coast.
But the icepack makes navigation impossible without an icebreaker for all of the other 10 months – and in all areas where sea ice is prevalent and subject to break-up, commercial navigation is normally assisted with icebreaking at any time of year. (The Russians have tales to tell about ships that tried to transit their northern coast without icebreaking support, in the late summer, and had to be abandoned in early fall after they had gotten stuck in the ice and couldn’t be dislodged.)
So all significant seafaring activity off the Alaskan coast in this area requires icebreaking services virtually all year. Shell isn’t the only economic actor contracting for icebreaking services. Most commercial maritime traffic operates within 70 miles of the coast – meaning that’s where the icebreakers will be cutting swaths through the ice and emitting their emissions – because that’s where the ice tends to be youngest and thinnest.
Even if Shell were the only entity contracting for icebreaking services, the company has been doing it for some time now, as indicated by this industry press release from the Norwegian agency that supplied an icebreaker to support Shell’s drilling in the Beaufort Sea in 2007. Besides the fact that the icebreaking has been going on, Shell has been doing oil industry work in the area at least that long – which means the EPA isn’t shutting this operation down in an early stage.
It’s not clear at this point what has changed (emission standards tightened? A particular icebreaker emitting too much?), but plenty of icebreaking has been allowed in the Beaufort Sea before. Even global warming believers venture into the Beaufort Sea on icebreakers.