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The US government has begun its full review of an application by Royal Dutch Shell to resume offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean off the Alaskan coast.
The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an arm of the Interior Department, said April 10 that it had satisfactorily finished its initial review of Shell’s application, submitted March 31, to drill in the Chukchi Sea and now could begin its final analysis.
The Anglo-Dutch energy company has a lease on drilling rights in the region and plans to drill an exploratory well there this summer. Besides getting the BOEM’s approval, it must also undergo federal reviews of its plans for worker safety, the protection of indigenous wildlife and plans for the disposal of wastewater.
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Shell’s application is under extra scrutiny because in 2012 the Kulluk, one of the company’s rigs drilling an exploratory well in the Gulf of Alaska, was swamped by a severe winter storm and ran aground at Sitkalidak Island.
Given the scrutiny, Shell welcomed the BOEM’s decision to move ahead with its application for drilling in Chukchi Sea. “The execution of our plan remains contingent on achieving the necessary permits, legal certainty and our own determination that we are prepared to explore safely and responsibly,” Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said in a statement.
Environmentalists denounced the plan, especially the speed with which the BOEM plans to make a final decision. The bureau has set a deadline of May 10 for a final ruling, giving Shell enough time to begin drilling, if it’s approved, in warmer weather.
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Still, that’s enough time to ensure that Shell complies with “stringent environmental and regulatory standards,” according to James Kendall, the BOEM’s manager for the Arctic outer continental shelf.
Environmentalists argue that the deadline leaves the public with only 10 days to comment on the project.
“The Interior Department is rushing an important process through and not giving the public enough time to review and comment, for Shell to be able to drill this summer,” said Cindy Shogan of the Alaska Wilderness League. “President Obama should take America’s Arctic Ocean off the table for good and say no to dangerous and risky drilling.”
One environmental group, Greenpeace, took its complaints directly to the Polar Pioneer, the 400 ft. tall drilling rig that is already being towed north through the Pacific Ocean to Seattle for preparatory work, and then to the Chukchi Sea. On April 6, six members of the group boarded the rig to protest Shell’s Arctic project.
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But on April 11, jostled by rough seas, the protesters climbed off the rig into inflatable boats that took them to a Greenpeace vessel that was waiting nearby, the group said in an e-mail.
That very day, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage, Alaska, also issued a restraining order on Shell’s behalf barring Greenpeace activists from entering a safety zone around the rig and the vessel towing it.
Op de Weegh praised Gleason's order. “These tactics are not peaceful protests,” she said in an e-mail. “They jeopardize the safety of the people working on board and the protesters themselves, especially aboard a moving vessel at sea.”
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