- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2015

The Obama administration on Monday gave conditional approval to Shell to explore for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska this summer, dealing another blow to environmentalists just months after President Obama announced the opening of parts of the Atlantic Ocean for drilling.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said it conditionally approved the multi-year exploration plan of Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc. after a comprehensive review and comments from the public, stakeholders, and federal and state partners.

“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,” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

Shell must still obtain necessary permits from state and federal agencies and comply with Biological Opinions issued under the Endangered Species Act.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the approval “is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan. However, before operations can begin this summer, it’s imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner.

“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,” Mr. Smith said in an email to The Associated Press.

Environmentalist groups, however, immediately denounced the move, saying Shell can’t be trusted to drill there safely.

“This decision places big oil before people, putting the Arctic’s iconic wildlife and the health of our planet on the line,” said Erik Grafe, an Earthjustice staff attorney. “The agency should not be approving such threatening plans based on a rushed and incomplete environmental and safety review. Ultimately, Arctic Ocean drilling is far too risky and undermines the administration’s efforts to address climate change and transition to a clean energy future. These fossil fuels need to remain in the ground.”

Mr. Obama has been aggressive in pursuing ways to reduce carbon emissions, but the move on Monday is the second in four months involving offshore drilling that managed to anger environmentalists.

In late January, the administration proposed a draft five-year plan that would open coastal waters off the southeastern U.S., from Virginia to Georgia, to offshore drilling starting in 2017. But the administration also announced then that it was designating portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas near Alaska off limits for drilling.

Shell had won prior approval to start drilling in 2012, but ran into a series of mishaps and was told by the government to re-submit its drilling program plan.

“Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth,” said Susan Murray, Oceana Deputy Vice President, Pacific. “Shell’s need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk. 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.”

Shell’s revised plan proposes the drilling of up to six wells within the Burger Prospect, located in about 140 feet of water about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright.

Arctic offshore reserves are estimated at 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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