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Shell wants judge to uphold permits

Associated Press Modified: May 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm •  Published: May 4, 2012

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Subsidiaries of Royal Dutch Shell PLC are making "improper use of the judicial system" by suing to head off challenges to permits that put them closer to exploratory drilling off Alaska's northern shores, an attorney for a conservation group said Friday.

In a lawsuit dated Wednesday, Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. asked a federal judge to rule that the National Marine Fisheries Service properly issued harassment authorizations for whales and seals. A spokesman for Shell Alaska, Curtis Smith, said the permits provide authorization to work near the animals as long as the impact is minimal.

But Michael LeVine, an attorney for the conservation group Oceana, likened Shell's lawsuit to a traffic cop putting a ticket on someone's car while it's still in the driveway.

"They're trying to resolve a dispute that they think might come up some day," LeVine said in an interview. "The court system doesn't allow them to do that."

This isn't the first time Shell has taken such a step. Earlier this year, the company sued the same conservation and environmental groups as it did this time, LeVine said. The earlier lawsuit sought to have federal agency approval of Shell's oil spill response plans upheld. The groups are seeking the case's dismissal.

In the more recent lawsuit, attorneys for Shell said the seasonal nature of Shell's exploration work, scheduled to begin this summer, along with what they call the extensive and time-consuming permitting process, leaves the authorizations vulnerable to legal maneuvers that could restrict Shell's ability to use them.

"Given their public statements and actions and their longstanding pattern and practice of filing challenges to Shell's regulatory authorizations, defendants cannot reasonably contend that they will not challenge" the authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Shell's attorneys said.

Smith said Shell is "very confident" the processes the agencies followed to approve the permits and plans were solid. While he acknowledged Shell's approach, in suing first, is "not conventional," he said the idea is to have any issues the groups have with the approvals confronted in court sooner rather than later.

He said history shows that opposition groups will use the courts "in an attempt to stall our program at every turn."

"We have no intention of sitting back and waiting for that to happen," Smith said.