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Environmental activists are furious that the Obama administration is allowing Royal Dutch Shell to begin its much-debated drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer, even with one remaining condition.
Two permits were issued July 22 by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, but with the provision that Shell can drill only one well at a time and that it can’t drill deep enough to reach oil deposits, an estimated 8,000 feet beneath the ocean floor, The Four Noble Truths Of Energy Investing
That equipment is an icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, which is now on its way to Portland, Ore., for repairs. The vessel is designed to keep drilling areas free from ice and carries equipment that can be installed within 24 hours to plug a leaking well.
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The condition appears to be President Obama’s effort to balance energy exploration and an environmentally friendly agenda.
“Activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards,” Brian Salerno, director of the bureau that imposed the restrictions, said in a statement. “As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship.”
In May, the Interior Department had conditionally consented to Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska, with some state and federal permits pending.
Those hurdles now have been cleared.
The Interior Department approval, even with its remaining condition, wasn’t welcomed by environmental activists, who have long argued that the remoteness of the drilling area and its harsh weather would interfere with any effort to clean up a spill and therefore pose a profound risk to its fragile marine life.
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“This decision puts the fate of the fragile Arctic Ocean, and our climate future, in the hands of Shell Oil,” Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.
Andrew Sharpless, the CEO of the environmental group Oceana, agreed. “The Arctic Ocean is too important to trust to Shell, and our government must stop bending rules to accommodate the company,” he said. “Until companies prove they can operate safely, allowing them in the Arctic Ocean is a dangerous mistake.”
In fact, Shell already has a poor record for work in the Arctic. In 2012, the Anglo-Dutch company was permitted to drill there but faced several procedural and safety problems that led to two of its drilling rigs needing to be towed to safety.
Supporters of U.S. efforts to develop its energy resources applauded the Interior Department’s decision to approve a start of drilling. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska and chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the move “good news for Alaska and our country.”
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“However, it is not the final regulatory hurdle Shell faces,” Murkowski said, “and it is important that the agencies continue to work in good faith and in a timely fashion to complete the remaining regulatory requirements.”
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the drilling will begin as soon as the icebreaker is repaired and in place in the Chukchi Sea. But Ann Pickard, the company’s executive vice president for the Arctic, said Shell will quickly abandon the site, known as the Burger J well, if it doesn’t yield oil.
“If we get a dry hole in J, we’re done,” Pickard said in interview with the Houston Chronicle in May. “I’ll recommend we say goodbye.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com