* Shell still awaiting a key permit
* Statoil also seeking permission
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) has won authorization from a federal judge to conduct limited tasks on its now-disputed leases in the remote region off Alaska’s northwestern coast.
A federal judge, who last month froze oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea because he found the Minerals Management Service failed to conduct proper environmental analysis before holding a 2008 lease sale, granted a reprieve to Shell for the environmental studies and shallow-hazards surveys it plans to conduct on its leases in the remote territory.
U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline said Shell’s scientific work is not covered by his July 21 order, which found the entire 2008 lease sale improper, and may in fact help gather some environmental information that the MMS failed to do before holding the lease sale.
“The contemplated activity does not include drilling and may have the benefit of assisting the parties in determining the propriety of future activities,” Beistline said in an order issued Monday.
But Shell is still awaiting a key permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service that would allow it to conduct marine mammal surveys, shallow-hazard surveys and ice-scouring studies in the Chukchi, where the company spent $2.1 billion in 2008 acquiring exploration rights, spokesman Curtis Smith said Wednesday.
Shell is also waiting for NMFS permission to carry out work in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast, where the company also holds leases to prospects it expects to drill in 2011, Smith said.
Meanwhile Statoil, a Norwegian company that also holds leases in the Chukchi, is also seeking permission from Beistline to follow through with a planned $40 million seismic program in the Chukchi.
That request is backed by the Obama administration, which in a motion last week cited the “significant economic losses” that Statoil might incur if not allowed to go forward with its planned survey program.
The Chukchi, which lies between northwestern Alaska and northeastern Siberia, is estimated by the Interior Department to hold 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. However, information about the resource potential is scant because there has been little exploration in the highly remote and forbidding area. Only five exploration wells have ever been drilled in the Chukchi, four of them by Shell about two decades ago.
Editing by Bill Rigby and Sofina Mirza-Reid