Shell Postpones Offshore Oil Drilling in Alaska Another Year

February 5, 2011- Nick Engelfried

On Friday environmentalists celebrated news that Shell Oil will delay offshore oil drilling plans in the Alaskan Arctic for at least another year.  Recently BP similarly announced it will wait at least until 2013 to begin offshore drilling in Alaska.  Though still hoping to prevent new offshore drilling in the Arctic altogether, environmental groups rejoiced at these delays which provide more time to see that stricter oil drilling regulations are put in place to protect delicate Alaskan ecosystems.

In the wake of last year’s disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling proposals in the Arctic have received increased scrutiny from environmentalists and policymakers alike.  Shell had originally hoped to begin offshore drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2010, but failed to obtain the needed regulatory permits.  In January a court overturned an air quality permit Shell would have needed to start drilling this year, apparently prompting Shell to give up altogether the idea of beginning Alaskan offshore drilling projects in 2011.

“Shell’s decision is great news for those who care about the Arctic,” says a statement from the Wilderness Society, “because it buys more time to ensure that any drilling, if it happens at all, does not go forward without needed—and more sophisticated than previously performed—environmental analyses.”

Offshore drilling in Alaska is a particularly touchy subject because an oil spill in the Arctic would be particularly difficult to clean up.  Because drilling would occur at remote locations and under potentially hazardous conditions, a spill like the one that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico last spring would be almost impossible to contain.  Add to that the fact that drilling would impact habitat of sensitive species like the polar bear, narwhal, and beluga whale, and proposals to drill in the Arctic become especially risky for wildlife. 

“An oil spill off the Arctic coast would be catastrophic for both the ecosystem and people living there,” said environmental group Greenpeace in an email to supporters on Friday.  Greenpeace is now urging the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to permanently halt all offshore oil drilling in Alaska. 

Though Shell and BP both still hope to drill offshore in the Arctic eventually, environmental groups hope they can continue to delay drilling until new environmental safeguards make the idea unattractive.  Last month the Presidential Oil Spill Commission, assembled by President Obama to study how a repeat of the Gulf of Mexico disaster can be avoided, released a report advising regulation and oversight of offshore drilling be strengthened to prevent another large spill. 

In a now-famous passage from the report, the commission states that “the root causes [of the BP spill] are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur” in the future.  If implemented the Oil Spill Commission’s recommendations for improved drilling safety would not ban offshore drilling outright, but they might make the practice prohibitively expense and prompt oil companies to concentrate on other ways of finding energy. 

In addition the US Department of the Interior has the ability to limit or ban offshore drilling in certain areas deemed particularly sensitive.  It is this authority Greenpeace hopes Secretary Salazar will invoke to stop future drilling in Alaska’s Arctic.  According to Greenpeace: “The time is now for Secretary Salazar to do what the oil companies won’t: Ban all offshore drilling in Arctic waters.  For good.”

While the fight over offshore drilling in the Arctic will certainly continue in the years ahead, for now environmental groups are celebrating the success of their efforts to delay both Shell and BP for at least another year.  Wildlife like the polar bear, bearded seal, walrus, and whale species from the giant grey whale to the relatively small beluga will benefit from the continued protection of their habitat from oil exploration.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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