The Obama administration has delayed a decision on a request by Shell Oil Co. to drill for oil and gas in Alaska's rugged Chukchi Sea. The delay came after the oil company asked for time to respond to criticism of its plan to drill in the icy sea, a prime habitat for threatened polar bears.
Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co., the U.S. unit of Royal Dutch Shell, denied Thursday that the oil company had requested the delay.
But a letter from the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department, says Shell asked for a chance to respond to a deluge of public comments submitted to the agency about the proposal to drill off Alaska's Northwest coast.
A Nov. 17 letter to Shell from John Goll, regional director of the Minerals Management Service, says the oil company has 10 days to respond to the public comments, which total more than 300 pages. The agency had been expected to decide on the drilling proposal by Friday but now has no deadline, said Nicholas Pardi, a spokesman for the minerals agency.
"We hope to come to decision as expeditiously as possible," Pardi said Thursday, adding that the extension should allow the agency to make a better decision on the oil exploration plan.
"We've always said we are in favor of offshore energy production as long as it is done in a technically and environmentally safe manner," he said. "Having more information just helps in the decision-making process."
A Shell spokesman tried to clarify Odum's denial, which came after a hearing on offshore drilling before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"If there is confusion in any communication, we are sorting this out with the MMS and DOI, and will continue to work with them constructively to move this forward," spokesman Bill Tanner said in an e-mail message.
Emilie Surrusco, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Wilderness League, which opposes offshore drilling, said she hoped Shell was not getting preferential treatment from the Minerals Management Service, where workers have been reprimanded for partying, having sex and using drugs with oil and gas industry representatives and accepting gifts from them. A former MMS employee was sentenced to probation earlier this year for failing to report a $2,500 hunting trip he received from an oil industry contractor while working in the scandal-ridden agency, which regulates oil and gas operations on leased federal property.
"We would hope that other interests will be afforded the same opportunity to review Shell's response to the comments before the MMS makes a decision on the Chukchi exploration plan," Surrusco said.
Members of the Alaska delegation to Congress met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week to urge him to approve the Chukchi plan and finalize revisions to a five-year plan for offshore oil and natural gas development in Alaska.
Shell Oil, which has spent more than $2 billion for exploration rights in the Chukchi, has been unable to proceed with plans to drill up to two exploratory wells on its leases in 2010 because Interior officials have failed to complete a court-ordered environmental assessment in a timely manner, the lawmakers said.
"This delay has gone on long enough," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "It's time to get development of Alaska's resources back on track."
Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, met Wednesday with Salazar and Carol Browner, the top White House adviser on energy and climate.
Begich said offshore drilling in Alaska can be done in an environmentally sound manner and is broadly supported by Alaskans. As joblessness continues to grow, Alaska energy development can help kick-start the economy, Begich said.