The Minerals Management Service on Monday conditionally approved plans by Shell Oil Co. to drill three exploratory wells next year in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the decision in Washington, D.C., and said a key component of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil is the environmentally responsible exploration and development of renewable and conventional resources.
"By approving this exploration plan, we are taking a cautious but deliberate step toward developing additional information on the Chukchi Sea," he said in a release.
Environmental groups bitterly oppose drilling. They say there has not been enough work to assess environmental risks in a sensitive marine ecosystem already stressed by climate change.
"There hasn't been enough science," said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program. "We don't know enough about the Arctic Ocean, particularly the Chukchi Sea, in the face of climate change."
Pew and other groups also say petroleum companies have not demonstrated an ability to clean up a spill in broken ice conditions, especially in the waters off northern Alaska, where a cleanup much of the year would be hampered by low light, dangerous seas and little available infrastructure such as ports, response vessels and airports.
"You can have a spill from an exploration well just as easily as a production well," Heiman said.
Shell's subsidiary, Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc., in 2008 paid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi. The 2008 sale was included in the Bush administration's 2007-2012 five-year oil and gas leasing program.
Shell proposes exploratory drilling in open water using a drill ship, an ice management vessel, an ice class anchor handling vessel, and oil spill response vessels. The closest proposed drill site is 60 miles off shore and about 80 miles from Wainwright, Alaska, an Inupiat Eskimo village of 534 about 710 miles northwest of Anchorage and 90 miles southwest of Barrow.
Salazar said the approval of Shell's plan is conditional upon close monitoring of drilling activities to ensure they are conducted in an environmentally safe manner.
He also noted that the 2007-2012 OCS plan is undergoing review in response to a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling for the D.C. Circuit. A three-judge panel in April found that the Bush-era Interior Department failed to consider the effect on the environment and marine life before it began the process in August 2005 to expand an oil and gas leasing program in the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi seas.
"MMS's approval of Shell's drilling plan before it addresses these underlying legal questions puts the cart before the horse," said David Dickson of the Alaska Wilderness League. He said the approval may prejudice the agency's reconsideration of Bush-era decisions to open the areas to oil and gas drilling without first gathering scientific information and putting a science-based management plan in place.
Shell officials called the MMS conditional approval a positive step but noted the company is still waiting for an air discharge permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"It's critical that we achieve this permit in a timeline manner to enable a go-ahead decision on our 2010 program," said Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby.