The Obama administration has given conditional approval to a controversial proposal by Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean this summer.
On Monday, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) approved Shell’s exploration plan for the Chukchi Sea, which entails drilling up to six wells approximately 70 miles northwest of Wainwright, Alaska. The plan is for exploratory drilling, a sort of first step that companies take to determine whether a region is feasible for large-scale production.
In announcing the conditional approval, BOEM cited its recently-issued safety regulations for drilling in the U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean, including the Chukchi Sea, where big oil companies have long been hoping to lay their claim. Those regulations require companies to have contingency plans for mishaps — companies must be able to “promptly deploy” emergency containment equipment to deal with a spill, and must build a second rig close to their initial operations so a relief well could be drilled in the event of a blowout, among other things.
“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”
Still, environmental groups are not satisfied with those precautions, arguing that the Arctic is too remote, sensitive, and unpredictable an environment to expose to the risks of drilling. They point to an analysis by BOEM itself that showed a 75 percent chance of a spill greater than 1,000 barrels should an oil company like Shell discover and fully produce oil in the Chukchi leases. They also note that the closest Coast Guard station that could respond to a spill is more than 1,000 miles away.
“It’s outrageous how our own government appears determined to sacrifice our precious Arctic Ocean for Shell’s profits,” said Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel in an e-mailed statement. “With a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill and more drilling equipment, air, water and noise pollution, this is the largest, loudest and dirtiest exploration plan ever proposed in the American Arctic Ocean.”
Other environmental groups point to Royal Dutch Shell’s disastrous attempt to drill in the Arctic in 2012 as reason for their concern. While the company was towing its Kulluk oil rig out into Dutch Harbor via ship, a harsh winter storm hit and the ship lost control of the rig. The rig, along with 150,000 gallons of fuel and drilling fluid, then washed up on an island along one of Alaska’s pristine coastlines.
Climate change is also often cited as a problem. Though the warming oceans and atmosphere are gradually making it easier for ships to foray into Arctic waters, drilling there has been shown pose further risks to the climate, via the continued burning of fossil fuels and release of black carbon and methane from the drilling process itself.
BOEM’s conditional approval of Shell’s exploration plan, however, does not represent a final decision to have that plan move forward. As Jennifer Dlouhy noted in Fuel Fix, Shell still needs seven more permits. It also needs to resolve a dispute with the city of Seattle, which is fighting the company’s plan use the Port of Seattle to dock its Arctic drilling rigs.