San Francisco: Shell Oil cleared the final hurdle to its Arctic oil-drilling operation when the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) approved the final drilling permits on Wednesday.
The Bureau, an agency of the Interior Department, set several limitations, however.
For instance, Shell cannot yet drill down as far as where the oil and gas are located. For that it must wait for the damaged icebreaker Fennica to return from being repaired in Portland, Oregon. The Fennica – which is carrying a vital piece of emergency equipment, the capping stack – gashed its hull while in Alaskan waters more than two weeks ago.
Shell can ask regulators for permission to drill deeper if and when the Fennica makes it to the Arctic drill zone, but there is no guarantee that will be approved.
Another limitation means that Shell is limited to drilling just one well at a time due to a US Fish and Wildlife regulation.
This is a big restriction on Shell as the open-water exploration season in the Arctic is fairly brief, lasting from July 15 to September 28.
The area Shell is targeting, in the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska, is one of the country’s last great oil reserves with a potential 26 billion barrels-worth up for tapping.
The granting of the permits was greeted with dismay by environmentalists who have been waging a campaign for months to disrupt and derail the Shell programme.
From mass protests in the Shell fleet’s temporary base at Seattle, through guerilla raids of Shell vessels at sea, to lawsuits and the recent letters written to the US authorities, the anti-drilling campaigners have been persistent and inventive but their efforts have failed for now.
The campaigners are concerned that, with a government-estimated 75% likelihood of a large spill, Shell’s contingencies are not adequate to prevent an environmental catastrophe in the extreme conditions of the Arctic.
Shell has not drilled in the Arctic since 2012 when its previous campaign there ended in some disarray.