WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has decided to allow Shell to drill in Arctic waters off the Alaska coast, saying that for the time being the company must not go so deep as to hit actual oil because its troubled oil spill containment barge isn’t ready.
Thursday’s decision to allow preparatory drilling represents a huge step in Shell’s controversial effort to explore in the Chukchi Sea. It shows the Obama administration, while not yet giving the green light for Shell to drill into oil-bearing geologic formations, is taking steps to help the company do so if possible this summer.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Shell will get a permit allowing it to drill about 1,500 feet into the seafloor.
“We believe that there is no oil in that area. We have confidence in that conclusion, otherwise we would not be allowing this limited exploratory effort to move forward,” Salazar said Thursday.
Interior Department officials said the drilling will allow for the later installation of a blowout preventer.
“Although these initial preliminary activities are extremely low risk, we’ll still be maintaining a level of vigorous oversight really unmatched in any offshore operation in the world,” said James Watson, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Salazar said it’s not clear whether Shell is going to be allowed this year to complete an exploratory well into zones containing oil. He said Shell still has requirements it must meet, particularly the certification of its oil spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger. The 38-year-old vessel is being retrofitted at a shipyard in Bellingham, Wash., a process that’s been plagued by delays and is the main reason Shell might not be able to complete a well this year.
“Shell frankly has missed their own deadlines relative to when they thought it was going to be ready,” Salazar said. “Now they’re telling us it will probably be four or five days away before certification.”
Salazar said Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing formations until the barge is ready and on site in the Chukchi Sea. The journey from the shipyard in Bellingham to the Arctic will take at least two weeks, and Shell is running out of time for this summer.
Shell is required to finish its work in the Chukchi Sea by Sept. 24, a deadline meant to ensure time to clean up an oil spill before the water freezes up. Shell, saying more recent data shows a later freeze-up coming in the Arctic waters than previously predicted, is asking for an extension of about two weeks.
Salazar said he won’t address the question of a possible extension until the spill containment barge is ready. Shell has a later deadline, Oct. 31, to drill in the Beaufort Sea off the Alaskan coast, where its drilling sites are close to shore. Shell has spent more than $4.5 billion on getting ready to explore off Alaska.
Environmental groups said Thursday’s decision shows the Obama administration bowing to pressure from the oil industry. Alaska Wilderness League executive director Cindy Shogan said the decision to allow the preliminary drilling offshore without the spill containment barge on site is “at best irresponsible.”
“While this is an interim step only, this is like a building inspector letting a developer start construction on a skyscraper on shaky ground before the safety plans are even complete,” said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Niel Lawrence.
Shell released a written statement saying it is “now only days away from responsibly beginning this critical exploration project.” Alaska’s U.S. senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, both hailed the Interior Department’s decision.
“I am pleased to see the Interior Department recognizes the importance of moving ahead with exploratory drilling this summer,” Begich said in a written statement. “Today’s decision shows flexibility while not sacrificing safety. This allows us to get one step closer to understanding and moving forward on the energy potential of the Arctic.”
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