Shell Gets Backing to Drill in the Arctic

Offshore oil drilling came to a halt last year after BP experienced a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  The toxic leak led the Obama administration to impose a clampdown on offshore drilling.  However, regulations seem to be shifting as the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) recently granted Shell a tentative approval to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean starting next summer.

Despite continual opposition from environmentalists and native Alaskans who use the area for their livelihood, Royal Dutch Shell has invested over five years and billions of dollars attempting to secure rights for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.  If the approval passes, Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, plans to drill four exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea.  The proposed wells would be drilled over two years in Camden Bay.  Shallow ocean floors would limit drilling to only a depth of 160 feet and approximately 20 miles off shore.  Many point to BP’s spill in 2010 as proof the depth and mileage of Shell’s drilling could turn devastating.  In contrast, BP was drilling at a depth of over 5,000 feet and 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, yet 11 workers were killed, nearly five million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico and innumerable sea life was harmed or killed.

Those opposed to the Arctic Ocean drilling say depth and mileage is just one of many reasons the plan should not pass.  The proposed site of drilling off the North Slope of Alaska is near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The water in the area houses a delicate ecosystem made up of marine mammals such as bowhead whales, polar bears, walrus, ice seals and other marine wildlife, many which are endangered.  Another reason argued against the drilling is the Beaufort Sea’s condition.  The frigid water poses unique obstacles if a spill did occur.  Director of Pew Environment Group’s Arctic program, Marilyn Heiman, said the region is considered the harshest in the world for drilling with hurricane-force winds, high seas, broken and shifting sea ice, subzero temperatures and months of fog and darkness.  On top of such conditions, the nearest Coast Guard Station is hundreds of miles away.  And while Shell does have a spill response plan, they acknowledge they don’t know how to address a potential spill on ice.

For the proposal to move forward, Shell still must receive a slew of approvals and permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Despite the need for more authorizations, steps are being taken to allow Shell to begin drilling.  According to a statement by BOEMRE Director, Michael Bromwich, the administrations decision was based on “the best scientific information available.”  In an announcement from BOEMRE, they stated that reviews and analyses found no evidence to suggest drilling would significantly affect the “quality of the human environment.”  The Interior Department vows to closely monitor Shell’s activities and make sure all actions are performed environmentally responsible.

The tentative approval comes after months of continually increasing gas prices.  A report by The New York Times states the move proves a willingness from President Obama to approve expansion of domestic oils. Alaska is being targeted for such an expansion because the state’s waters are considered to hold the second largest oil reservoir behind the Gulf of Mexico.  According to a federal report, the Arctic Ocean could hold as much as 26.6 billion barrels of oil.  If passed, the plan is believed to be the key in alleviating the Untied States’ reliance on foreign oil, along with increasing the national employment rate.

Photo Credit:  boemre.gov/mmskids/explore/explore.htm

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