Shell gets OK for offshore Alaska drilling

The Minerals Management Service has approved (with conditions) Shell’s plan to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea off the North Slope of Alaska.

“A key component of reducing our country’s dependence on foreign oil is the environmentally-responsible exploration and development of America’s renewable and conventional resources,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “By approving this Exploration Plan, we are taking a cautious but deliberate step toward developing additional information on the Chukchi Sea.”

Shell plans to use one drill ship, one ice management vessel, an ice class anchor handling vessel, and oil spill response vessels. The closest proposed drill site is more than 60 miles to shore and approximately 80 miles from Wainwright, Alaska.
The 2007-2012 Outer Continental Shelf plan is currently undergoing review in response to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit order which required additional environmental analysis. Salazar’s decision on the remaining plan is forthcoming, the DOI said.
Shell’s drilling plan for the Beaufort Sea, which is East of the Chuckchi, was approved earlier this year after four years of delay by lawsuits.
In a statement Shell Alaska Vice President, Pete Slaiby said the company looks forward “to working with regulators and stakeholders in the months ahead.”

“We sincerely believe this exploration plan addresses concerns we have heard in North Slope Communities, including concerns around program footprint and pace.”
“Shell believes the Chukchi Sea could be home to some of the most prolific, undiscovered hydrocarbon basins in North America. We will continue to work closely with regulators, local communities and the State of Alaska as we move closer to responsibly exploring for oil and gas reserves that could ultimately lead to tens of thousands of jobs, extended life for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and increased domestic energy security for decades to come.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also applauded the decision:

“This is progress,” Murkowski said. “Today’s announcement from the MMS is an encouraging sign that Alaska’s oil and natural gas resources can continue to play a major role in America’s energy security.”
“While this represents a step forward, significant hurdles remain before exploration can advance in the Chukchi,” Murkowski said.

A number of Alaskan environmental and community groups expressed disappointment in the MMS decision, calling it a “rubber stamp” on the plan without doing “a full analysis of its potentially significant effects on wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence, already threatened by climate change, and despite a lack of fundamental scientific information about the region:

“The proposed oil and gas activities affect the very foundations of who we are as individuals and as a people. We have a right to life, to physical integrity, to security, and the right to enjoy the benefits of our culture. For this, we will fight; we just hope not to die as a people during the process,” said Caroline Cannon, president of the Native Village of Point Hope on Alaska’s North Slope.
“The reality of offshore oil drilling is that accidents will happen. And when oil spills in Arctic ice, there is no cleaning it up,” said Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director with the Defenders of Wildlife. “Alaskans value their wildlife, from polar bears to bowhead whales. This decision will certainly put that wildlife at risk. Unfortunately, it appears that Big Oil is calling the shots here.”
“The government agency itself [Minerals Management Service] projects a 40 percent chance of a major spill from Chukchi Sea oil leases,” said Pamela A. Miller, Alaska Program Director for Northern Alaska Environmental Center. “Chronic spills are a fact of life from oil and gas operations on Alaska’s North Slope, where over 6,000 spills have occurred since 1996, and more than 400 of these took place at offshore oil fields.”