The US administration has given conditional approval for Shell Oil to drill in a remote and dangerous part of Alaska. Environmentalists oppose the plan for the Chukchi Sea which is rich in marine mammal life.
The Obama administration said "rigorous safety standards" and a long review process had led to approval being given to Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic this summer.
But the controversial decision has been met with strong opposition by environmentalists who cite the dangers of an accident in a region a thousand miles from the nearest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to an oil spill.
The weather in the Chukchi Sea is extreme with major storms, icy water and waves up to 50 feet (15 meters). The sea is also a major migration route and feeding area for marine mammals, including bowhead whales and walruses.
But administration officials say they have taken measures to make sure drilling will be regulated: “We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea,” Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement.
Ross Hopper said that officials recognize "the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region" and have established "high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives."
"As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards," she said.
Shell had been given a permit for offshore Arctic drilling in the summer of 2012 but the project was beset with safety and operational problems. One of the rigs, the Kulluk, ran aground and had to be towed to safety. In 2013 the Interior Department said Shell could not resume drilling until all safety issues had been addressed.
The drilling plan is for six wells within the Burger Prospect, located about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright, Alaska. The wells would be drilled in about 140 feet of water by the Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer. Both vessels would provide relief-well capability for the other. Both ships would leave the Chukchi Sea at the end of each drilling season.
Seattle was planned as the home base for the Arctic drilling operation. Mayor Ed Murray said the Port of Seattle would have to apply for a new land-use permit from the city for Shell to use its cargo terminal. The local Seattle Post-Intelligencer then reported that Shell had a "back-up plan" if they were blocked from using Seattle's port.
Activists plan to protest the movement of 400-foot (120-million meter) drill ship Polar Pioneer from Port Angeles, Washington, to the Seattle port. A "festival of resistance" is to include protesters on land and in kayaks, trying to block the ship's movements.
"This decision places big oil before people, putting the Arctic's iconic wildlife and the health of our planet on the line," Erik Grafe, an attorney for Earthjustice, said in a statement.
Susan Murray, deputy vice president of ocean protection organization Oceana, called Shell's exploration plan "risky and ill-conceived."
"Accidents can and do happen; and there is no proven way to respond to an oil spill in icy Arctic waters," she said.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration opened up part of the Atlantic Coast to new offshore drilling.
jm/bw (AP, AFP)