Royal Dutch Shell plc's plans to explore the Chukchi Sea offshore Alaska this summer are accelerating as federal regulators OK several critical permits.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Monday approved Shell's request for an incidental harassment authorization. NOAA acknowledged that planned drilling and associated activities would disturb some marine mammals that live in the area or migrate through it.

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved two permits to discharge wastewater from the two contracted drilling rigs, the Transocean Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer. The EPA permits allow water-based drilling fluids, cuttings from inside the well and wastewater produced on board to be discharged from the well.

Still outstanding are a few permit approvals from the Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

NOAA acknowledged in its permit approval that sounds associated with dynamic positioning rigs over wells, air gun arrays used in seismic testing and vessels while actively moving ice away from the area could affect the bowhead whale, beluga whale, harbor porpoise, bearded seal and other species. Shell is barred from causing serious injury or death to any animals. Marine mammal observers are to be stationed on the two contracted drilling rigs to be used in Chukchi.

Under the authorization, Shell vessels must reduce speeds to at least five knots whenever they are within 300 yards of whales. Any boats capable of steering around the animals are required to do so. Vessels also are to avoid multiple changes in direction and speed whenever they are within 300 yards of whales and reduce speeds when weather conditions decrease visibility.

Keeping whale pods together was a major consideration. NOAA said Shell's vessels "may not be operated in such a way as to separate members of a group of whales from other members of the group."

Conservation groups have been attempting to prevent Shell's drilling plans, which were approved by BSEE and recently upheld by an appeals court (see Daily GPIJune 12). The NOAA authorization also was blasted.

"Shell is permitted to harass as many as 25,217 ringed seals, 1,662 beluga whales and 1,038 bowhead whales among other mammals," Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan said. "Shell's Arctic drilling plans are risky and reckless" and the permit "reveals another layer of outrage."