Royal Dutch Shell has received final approval to move forward on its controversial plan to explore for oil in the frigid, remote Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement granted conditional approval to two permits that will allow the company to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea, about 140 miles from Alaska’s northwest shoreline. However, the approval came with conditions that will slightly alter Shell’s plans. Certain oil-rich areas will be temporarily off limits to drilling because of issues with Shell’s safety equipment, and Shell will be prevented from drilling two wells at once. The administration had previously told Shell that it could only drill in one area at a time because the proposed sites are too close to each other.
Drilling could begin in just a few days, as Shell has said that it will aim to begin some time this month, the Hill reported.
The approval represented a significant loss for the environmental community, which has long argued against Arctic drilling in part due to concerns over the sensitive environment, which is home to vulnerable animal species like the polar bear and walrus. Climate change has also been a concern, as scientists have warned oil extraction there will further exacerbate the human-caused phenomenon.
“Shell shouldn’t be drilling in the Arctic, and neither should anybody else,” said Franz Matzner, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Beyond Oil program, in an emailed statement. “President Obama’s misguided decision to let Shell drill has lit the fuse on a disaster for our last pristine ocean and for our climate.”
Shell’s shaky track record of drilling attempts in the Arctic has also been raised. Shell already had an accident in the Arctic the first time it tried to drill there in 2012, when a harsh winter storm hit and the company lost control of a rig. The rig, along with 150,000 gallons of fuel and drilling fluid, washed up on an island along one of Alaska’s pristine coastlines.
“Allowing Shell, with its horrible track record of accidents and disregard for the rules, to drill even on a limited basis without the equipment on site to contain a spill is truly reckless,” said Rachel Richardson, the director of Environment America’s anti-drilling program, in a press release. “Today’s action is a huge setback for climate action and the health of the Arctic.”
Those groups are pledging to continue fighting against the plans, and lawsuits challenging permit approvals from other U.S. agencies are already underway. A lawsuit filed earlier this month against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management accuses the agency of performing a “rush and cursory” review of Shell’s plans, and seeks to nullify the permit. Protesters have also delayed the company’s plans in a number of ways, first boarding its rig and refusing to leave, then surrounding it in a barricade of kayaks.