President Barack Obama is ending restrictions on Shell’s drilling in the Arctic Ocean – even as he prepares a trip to Alaska to highlight the dangers of climate change.
The Interior Department, satisfied that Shell can handle any emergencies, is approving the oil company's request to drill deep enough to hit oil in the waters off the northwest coast of Alaska. Shell is betting that it will find a giant pool.
“Now that the required well control system is in place and can be deployed, Shell will be allowed to explore into oil-bearing zones,” said Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
The announcement comes just days after Obama said he plans to visit Alaska at the end of the month to focus on the dangers of global warming. Environmental groups said the president’s decision to open the Arctic Ocean to drilling conflicts with his rhetoric about climate change.
“Science tells us that Arctic oil must stay in the ground, untouched, to avoid adding to the already dire impacts of climate change,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “Key species like the walrus are already impacted by the disappearance of Arctic ice.”
The Interior Department originally restricted Shell to drilling only the top sections of wells and not going deep enough to hit oil. The agency cited Shell’s lack of a capping stack, equipment to shut a well in an emergency.
Shell’s capping stack is on the M/V Fennica, a leased icebreaker that ruptured its hull last month and had to be diverted to Portland, Ore., for repairs. The Interior Department said Monday that the icebreaker has now been repaired and is in the Arctic, with a capping stack “capable of being deployed within 24 hours.”
Shell is therefore being allowed to drill down into oil-bearing zones in its Burger J well, which is in about 140 feet of water off Alaska’s northwest coast some 70 miles from the village of Wainwright.
Activities conducted offshore Alaska are being held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards.
Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
The Obama administration’s decision to allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean won praise from the oil and gas industry.
“Many agree that there is huge potential for oil and natural gas in the Arctic, but the only way to prove such resources exist is to actually explore,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.
The offshore drilling trade group commended the Obama administration “for the logical decision allowing Shell to safely proceed with exploratory drilling.”
The decision comes four days after Obama released a video previewing his upcoming trip to Alaska. The president didn’t mention the Arctic Ocean drilling in the video, focusing only on climate change.
“Later this month I’m going to Alaska, and I’m going because Alaskans are on the frontlines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century – climate change,” Obama said in his video address.
The Interior Department said Shell will operate under strict requirements, and that in order to protect marine mammals it can’t drill its two wells at the same time because they are within 15 miles of another.
Shell will also need to have trained wildlife observers on board all drilling and support vessels “to minimize impacts to protected species,” the agency said.