The Obama administration on Monday gave conditional approval to allow Shell to start drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer, a major victory for the petroleum industry and a devastating blow to environmentalists.
The decision adds a complex new chapter to the legacy of President Obama, who has pursued the most ambitious environmental agenda of any president but has sought to balance those moves by opening up untouched federal waters to new oil and gas drilling.
Shell has sought for years to drill in the icy waters of the Chukchi Sea. Federal scientists believe the region could hold up to 15 billion barrels of oil.
Both industry and environmental groups say that the Chukchi Sea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to drill. The area is extremely remote, with no roads connecting to major cities or deepwater ports within hundreds of miles, making it difficult for cleanup and rescue workers to reach in case of an accident.The Interior Department decision angered environmentalists who for years have demanded that the administration reject offshore Arctic drilling proposals. They fear that a drilling accident in the treacherous Arctic Ocean waters could have far more devastating consequences than the deadly Gulf of Mexico spill of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion killed 11 men and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the water.
The closest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to a spill is over 1,000 miles away. The weather is extreme, with major storms, icy waters and waves up to 50 feet high. The sea is also a major migration route and feeding area for marine mammals, including bowhead whales and walruses.
Administration officials said they had taken measures to ensure that the new drilling in the Arctic would be carefully 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. She said that the administration recognized the need to establish high standards for the protection of the Arctic ecosystem as well as the cultural traditions of Alaska Natives and that the offshore exploration “will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”
The Interior Department’s approval of the drilling was conditional on Shell’s receiving approval of remaining state and federal drilling permits for the project, including permits from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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