The Interior Department is giving Shell final approval to drill in the Arctic Ocean, but with restrictions limiting the company’s ability to explore for oil in the environmentally sensitive region.
Shell can start immediately to drill the top sections of wells off the northern coast of Alaska.
But the company won’t be allowed to drill down into oil-bearing zones because it doesn’t have an available capping stack, equipment designed to shut a well if there’s an emergency.
Shell’s capping stack is on the M/V Fennica, a leased icebreaker that ruptured its hull earlier this month and is on the way to Portland for repairs.
Once the repairs are finished and the icebreaker is ready to be deployed to the Arctic Ocean, Shell can ask to start a full Arctic drilling effort.
But there’s limited time to drill in the short Arctic summer. Shell also has to abandon plans to drill two wells simultaneously because they are within 15 miles of another. That’s because of requirements to protect marine mammals imposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship," said Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Shell has spent more than $6 billion so far on its Arctic offshore effort and has yet to extract oil. The company launched an exploratory effort in 2012 but it was marred by safety and environmental violations and the drilling program has been on hold since.
Environmental groups condemned the president on Wednesday for allowing Shell back into Arctic waters.
"Shell shouldn’t be drilling in the Arctic, and neither should anybody else. President Obama's misguided decision to let Shell drill has lit the fuse on a disaster for our last pristine ocean and for our climate," said Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council.