The Obama administration on Monday conditionally agreed to allow Shell to resume exploring for oil in the Arctic Ocean, three years after safety and environmental violations marred the company’s offshore Arctic drilling program.
The approval is a major defeat for environmental groups and Seattle officials, who had pressed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to block Shell’s drilling plan. Seattle city leaders are attempting to stop Shell from using the city’s port for its drilling rigs, with the mayor citing climate change and the danger from oil spills. Activists are planning to meet Shell’s drilling rigs with a protest flotilla of kayaks when they arrive at the port.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said Monday that Shell could move forward with its Arctic drilling plans this summer on the condition that it received all necessary permits from other federal agencies.
“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Hopper said in a statement. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”
Shell is proposing to drill up to six wells within the Burger Prospect, which the oil company says could turn into a world-class, multi-billion-barrel discovery. The prospect is about 70 miles off the northwest coast of Alaska.
Shell has spent some $6 billion so far on its Arctic offshore effort and has yet to extract oil. The company is pledging to have “the most environmentally sensitive, thoroughly responsible plan ever assembled for exploration offshore Alaska.”
Shell will conduct its operations using the drill ship M/V Noble Discoverer and the semi-submersible drilling unit named Transocean Polar Pioneer. The Noble Discoverer was found in violation of maritime safety and environmental laws during Shell’s 2012 drilling season, and contractor Noble Drilling was fined $12.2 million for problems on it and the drilling rig Kulluk, which grounded on an Alaskan island.
Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in 2013 that “ Shell screwed up” and the company wouldn’t be allowed to drill the Arctic Ocean again until it proved it could handle conditions. Environmental groups argue that Shell’s track record in the Arctic shows it can’t be trusted in the sensitive region.
“Spills under ice sheets can’t be controlled, and America doesn’t need the oil in order to maintain its energy independence. So this is just cynical partisan politics, a public relations bone that the Obama administration is throwing to Shell,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold.
The Department of Interior said Monday that it had proposed tighter offshore drilling rules as well as standards for the Arctic that were “specifically tailored to the region’s challenging and unforgiving conditions.”