The Obama administration gave Royal Dutch Shell conditional approval Monday to drill for oil in the Arctic sea.
The move defies President Barack Obama’s environmentalist supporters, who are opposed to allowing oil companies to tap into polar reserves.
Environmentalists have been heavily campaigning against Arctic drilling, but the Department of the Interior has opted to give Shell permission to drill in the Chukchi Sea. The Arctic region is estimated to hold some “90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids,” according to U.S. Geological Survey figures.
“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,” Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement.
“As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards,” she said.
Environmentalists protested the announcement, arguing that allowing drilling in the Arctic will cause more oil spills and accelerate global warming. Activists point to the grounding of a Shell drilling rig during a rough winter storm in early 2013. Environmentalist opposition to drilling is still high. Greenpeace even landed activists on the boat carrying an Arctic drilling rig on its way to Seattle. Greenpeace activists hoped their actions would highlight the dangers of global warming.
“Shell has not shown that it is prepared to operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and neither the company nor our government has been willing to fully and fairly evaluate the risks of Shell’s proposal,” Susan Murray, a vice president of the environmental group Oceana, told The New York Times.
The move to allow limited drilling in the Arctic comes after Obama used his executive powers to take large swaths of U.S. seas and lands off the table to prospective drillers. The president has made some areas of the Arctic seas off-limits to drilling and proposed making the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to development. The president has also unveiled $1.2 billion in new Arctic drilling regulations that have been criticized by the industry.
Shell originally received approval from the Obama administration to drill in the Arctic in 2012, but Shell’s attempts at drilling in the Arctic suffered major setbacks. Regulators were concerned the company wasn’t doing enough about safety, and after two Arctic rigs ran ashore in 2013, the Interior Department said the company couldn’t move forward without addressing these concerns.
“The approval of our Revised Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan,” a Shell spokesman told The NYTimes.
“However, before operations can begin this summer, it’s imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner,” the spokesman said. “In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator.”