Offshore oil drilling gets go-ahead in Alaska's Arctic

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department today gave the go-ahead for Shell Oil to begin drilling three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, a move that opens the door for production in a new region of the Arctic.

"This is progress," said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Today's announcement from the MMS is an encouraging sign that Alaska's oil and natural gas resources can continue to play a major role in America's energy security."

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service signed off on a plan that allows Shell to drill up to three exploration wells during the July-to-October open-water drilling season. The company's proposal calls for using one drill ship, one ice management vessel, an ice-class anchor-handling vessel and oil spill response vessels, the Interior Department said. The closest proposed drill site is more than 60 miles to shore and about 80 miles from Wainwright.

"Our approval of Shell's plan is conditioned on close monitoring of Shell's activities to ensure that they are conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today in a statement announcing his decision. "These wells will allow the department to develop additional information and to evaluate the feasibility of future development in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell, Conoco Phillips and other companies last year paid more than $2 billion for leases in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska. The companies and state officials believe the offshore reserves could power the Alaska economy for decades.

But the potential offshore development is of concern to native Alaskans and environmentalists. Native groups along the northern coast worry the noise of offshore development could chase away bowhead whales and other subsistence foods. They, along with environmentalists, are concerned about the limited technology for cleaning up oil spills in icy water.

"Obviously we're disappointed," said Marilyn Heiman, the U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group. "A spill could happen from an exploratory well just as easily as it could from a production well. They have not yet demonstrated they have the ability and the expertise to clean up an oil spill, especially in the darkness, the extreme weather and the icy conditions."

The Bush administration's five-year plan for oil and gas exploration off the U.S. coast is under review by the Obama administration. Salazar has held public hearings, including a meeting in April in Anchorage where then-Gov. Sarah Palin and her replacement, Sean Parnell, spoke in favor of offshore development. The agency is still considering whether to let the plan continue through 2012 or write a new one.