Interior Department Grants Shell Permission to Do Preliminary Drilling in Chukchi Sea

Shell Oil Company can now begin preliminary drilling in the Arctic, to the consternation of environmental groups.

Environmentalists reacted strongly to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) announcement on Thursday August 30 that Shell has been granted permission to do limited, experimental drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

“It is our highest priority that any activities that occur offshore Alaska be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards,” BSEE director James A. Watson said in a statement. “Shell’s applications for permits to drill into potential oil reservoirs remain under review, and Shell will not be authorized to drill into areas that may contain oil unless and until the required spill containment system is fully certified, inspected, and located in the Arctic. Today’s announcement authorizes Shell to move forward with limited activities well short of oil-bearing zones that can be done safely now prior to the certification and arrival of the containment system.”
Shell’s Noble Discoverer drill ship, the same one that actress Lucy Lawless was arrested for occupying back in February while it was still docked in New Zealand, was scheduled to arrive in the Chukchi Sea within 48 hours of the announcement, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar told The New York Times. After taking a couple of days to connect its anchors, it would begin drilling.

Salazar told reporters in a conference call that BSEE safety experts would be present at the drilling 24 hours a day for the limited drilling, which is restricted to the layer of sea floor that is above the oil reserves, the Associated Press reported. It will be permitted to drill pilot holes and mud-line cellars that protect a well’s blowout preventer, the AP said.

"These activities are essential safety steps that will allow for the installation and protection of the blowout preventer," Salazar said, according to the wire service.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, applauded the move. “Today’s decision is a positive step that will allow Shell to begin necessary preparatory work, while maintaining the highest environmental standards to ensure the protection of the Arctic,” she said in a statement. “While we would all like to see a discovery this summer, the most important thing is for Shell to continue to make progress and demonstrate once again that Arctic drilling can be done safely.”

Such assurances did not appease groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which said the decision does not safeguard the environment.

“While this is an interim step only, this is like a building inspector letting a developer start construction on a skyscraper on shaky ground before the safety plans are even complete,” said NRDC senior attorney Niel Lawrence in a statement. “It’s premature, it’s unwarranted and it’s wrong–especially when it’s happening in one of the most pristine places on earth.”

Likewise the World Wildlife Fund was full of trepidation. Spokesperson Margaret Williams told the AP that the technology does not exist to contain a spill in the extreme environment of the Arctic Ocean.

"This is one of the most productive marine areas in the world, supporting hundreds of species and thousands of people who depend on the sea's bounty," she told the news wire by e-mail. "To drill in our Arctic Ocean is to gamble with its future."

Salazar told The New York Times that announcing the drilling permission on the last day of the Republican National Convention was purely coincidental.