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US approves Shell drilling in Arctic

August 17, 2015

The Obama administration has granted Royal Dutch Shell the final permit to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic for the first time since 2012. Environmentalists have vowed to fight the move.

Shell oil well in Arctic waters
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced Monday that it approved the permit to drill below the ocean floor after the oil giant brought in a required piece of equipment to stop a possible well blowout.

Shell is now due to start drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's northwest coast in an area that has been untouched for more than two decades.

The agency had previously allowed Shell to begin drilling only the top sections of two wells in the Chukchi Sea because the key equipment, called a capping stack, was stuck on a vessel that needed repair in Portland, Oregon.

Shell had obtained the leases in the Chukchi during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

"Activities conducted offshore Alaska are being held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards," said agency Director Brian Salerno in a statement.

"We will continue to monitor their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship."

Environmental concerns

But environmental groups said they oppose Arctic offshore drilling, saying industrial activity will harm polar bears, Pacific walrus, ice seals and threatened whales already vulnerable from climate warming and shrinking summer sea ice. They said that oil companies had not demonstrated that they could clean up a spill in water choked by ice.

The US Geological Survey estimates that US Arctic waters hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, and Shell is eager to explore in a basin that company officials say could be a "game changer" for domestic production. The Arctic is home to what the US government estimates is 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

Shell said it hoped to drill two exploration wells during the short 2015 open-water season. It has until late September, when all work must stop. The company currently has two drill vessels and about 28 support vessels in the Chukchi Sea.

ss/cmk (Reuters, AP)