Shell cleared a major hurdle Thursday in its effort to begin a two-year drilling program in the Arctic Ocean next summer, receiving a conditional exploration permit from the federal agency that oversees offshore oil development.
The company said it was buoyed by the morning announcement from the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, just as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was preparing for an Alaska visit next week at the invitation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
That congressional tour, which will also include Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, will focus on energy issues.
The exploration permit covers an overall program that would drill four wells over two years in Camden Bay of the Beaufort Sea, due north of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But the permit is contingent on many other federal permits and approvals, among them governing air pollution from drill ships and companion vessels, oil-spill response plans, marine mammal protection and specific plans for each of the wells. A Shell spokesman in Alaska, Curtis Smith, said the company has been informed that at least the oil-spill response plan is near conclusion and will be approved next week.
Representatives of several environmental organizations, in a joint telephone news conference from Washington, D.C., said they were disappointed by the decision and were studying whether to challenge it in court. Erik Grafe, an Anchorage-based attorney for Earthjustice, said they had 60 days to file a lawsuit.
Grafe and the others said the federal approval was granted before Shell proved it could clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. They said the drilling program should have been subject to a full-blown environmental impact statement with public comment and additional research, not the more limited environmental assessment that the agency conducted.
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