Washington: The US Department of the Interior (DoI) confirmed the hopes of Shell and the fears of environmentalists on Tuesday when it endorsed the 2008 government auction of oil lease 193, a significant step on the way to Shell returning to exploration in Arctic waters.
It’s not the final hurdle yet as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an agency within the DoI, must still give its approval for the company’s broad exploration plan and then do an environmental assessment on it.
But those obstacles could be cleared in a month, hence Tuesday’s decision was more like the green light for Shell to accelerate its efforts, already under way in anticipation, to get its equipment in place in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska and make the most of the short summer operation window.
The decision was also an extra impetus for Greenpeace to continue their pursuit of the Shell vessels in the Pacific so they can draw attention to concerns about the project.
Greenpeace’s Esperanza has been trying to chase down the semi-submersible lift ship Blue Marlin, semi-submersible drilling rig Polar Pioneer and drillship Noble Discoverer.
Paradoxically, the DoI’s record of decision on Shell’s Arctic drilling lease was released on the same day that the Obama administration pledged greenhouse gas emission cuts ahead of international climate talks.
If Shell does successfully navigate the remaining regulatory requirements they will be returning to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic for the first time since suffering mishaps there in 2012, including air pollution violations and the grounding of the drilling unit Kulluk on an Alaskan island.
The Chukchi Sea lease sale has had a chequered life. An Alaska-based federal court ordered the DoI to redo its environmental analysis in 2010 after finding deficiencies with the review.
Then in 2014 a circuit court of appeals found the department’s initial calculation wildly underestimated how much crude would be extracted from the Chukchi Sea leases. When a revised environmental impact statement was done it figured a potential 4.3bn barrels of oil as compared to the initial 1bn.
And currently activists in Seattle are challenging a lease whereby a terminal at the port of Seattle would be used as the mooring for Shell’s Arctic fleet.