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Conditional approval for Shell's 2012 Arctic Alaska offshore drilling plans

Amanda Coyne

Royal Dutch Shell has received conditional approval by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on its plans to drill exploratory wells in Alaska’s Arctic waters next summer -- pending certain conditions.

The first condition is that the company must halt drilling 38 days before the first sea ice forms over the drilling site, which typically happens about Nov. 1.

The company also must get approvals for its oil spill response plans before it can start drilling in the Chukchi Sea, oil reserves the company has so far spent about $4 billion trying to reach.

Shell would still have about 120 days of drilling time in the Chukchi, but BOEM’s decision seems to be making nobody happy.

In a press release Friday, Shell said it’s still evaluating the decision, but is “concerned this unwarranted restriction could severely impact our ability to deliver a complete Chukchi program.” On the other hand, it called the decision an “important step towards our goal of drilling our Chukchi leases starting in July of next year.”

Alaska's U.S. Sen. Mark Begich issued a more stern news release, calling the decision to shorten the drilling season “short-sighted” and “influenced by election year politics instead of the long-term energy and jobs needs of our country.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski had similar concerns. “Some of the conditions attached to this decision seem to be a response to newspaper ads, rather than founded in science,” Murkowski said in a press release. “This arbitrarily curtails an already a very short drilling season, unnecessarily putting the project at risk. Alaska’s offshore resources represent our greatest potential to get America’s economy moving again.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that has been leading opponents of drilling in Alaska’s Arctic waters, said that merely cutting down on the drilling time does nothing to prevent or deal with a spill.
“They're still going to be out there drilling in harsh Arctic conditions with no ability to respond if there is a spill,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the group.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the tribal liaison for the Alaska Wilderness League, said on a conference call that drilling in Alaska's Arctic waters is detrimental to traditional and cultural lifestyles. “We depend on having clean water and clean air. The process is putting that at risk” for the “profit of others,” she said, “to take the oil and gas to other places.”

Federal scientists estimate the Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast contain some 27 billion barrels of oil. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com