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article imageRoyal Dutch Shell gets conditional approval to drill in Arctic

By Lynn Herrmann     Aug 5, 2011 in Politics
Washington - Royal Dutch Shell took a giant step on Thursday toward beginning offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean when the Obama administration issued conditional approval for the oil giant’s four exploratory wells to commence operations as early as July 2012.
A revised Exploration Plan (EP) by Shell Offshore Inc was given the tentative green light this week, by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), which would allow drilling activities to take place in the Beaufort Sea, situated off Alaska’s North Slope. The oil giant must now get additional government approvals from the EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We base our decisions regarding energy exploration and development in the Arctic on the best scientific information available,” said Michael Bromwich, BOEMRE director, in a statement. “We will closely review and monitor Shell’s proposed activities to ensure that any activities that take place under this plan will be conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”
Leading environmental groups have come out strongly against the approval, with several noting the government merely rubber-stamped Shell’s proposal. At risk is a fragile ecosystem where the nearest help, should an oil spill occur, would come from almost 1,000 miles away.
“Rather than continuing the rush to drill, it is time to take a step back and look at the information and spill response gaps identified recently by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), learn from it, and take the appropriate time to develop an Arctic plan,” said Susan Murray, Oceana Pacific Senior Director, in a statement. “We should do what is best for the Arctic Ocean and those who depend on it, not what is best for an international big oil company’s bottom line.”
Oceana notes an oil spill drill conducted in the Beaufort Sea in 2000 was labeled a “failure,” with all mechanical systems, including skimmers and booms, unable to properly function in the icy waters.
Additionally, Oceana quotes Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp, who told members of Congress last week that: “If [an oil spill] were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska we’d have nothing. We’re starting from ground zero today…We have zero to operate with at present.”
The conditional approval comes as the White House faces mounting pressure from the American public over rising energy costs and associated factors, and the move is seen as another effort by Obama to increase domestic oil and gas production.
Despite last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation’s worst environmental disaster which also claimed 11 lives, BOEME stated that
Based on its review of the plan, new information that included extensive input from stakeholders, and previous National Environmental Policy Act analyses, BOEMRE found no evidence that the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Therefore, BOEMRE determined that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was not required, and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a key step in the approval of the EP.
For Shell’s part, it states having the ability to cover 95 percent of an oil spill, a discharge scenario it had to triple up to 16, 000 barrels of oil per day for the Beaufort Sea, by using mechanical recovery equipment which, as noted, has failed in previous drills. Persons interested in addressing Shell about energy production in the Arctic may participate in the oil company’s webchat scheduled for August 18.
In a statement issued following BOEMRE’s announcement, Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said, “The conditional approval of our Revised Beaufort Sea Plan of Exploration is welcome news and adds to our cautious optimism that we will be drilling our Alaska leases this time next year,” according to The Hill.
Earthjustice issued a statement over the tentative approval and notes the Obama administration is rolling the dice. “This is a disaster waiting to happen, but still BOEMRE is moving forward with Arctic Ocean drilling,” said Holly Harris, an attorney with Earthjustice.
With no proven methods for dealing with an oil spill in most of the Arctic’s conditions, the Arctic ecosystem now appears to carry a big target. “It is time for the Obama administration to commit to the truth,” Murray added in the Oceana statement. “The American public should no longer be given misinformation, if a spill will be impossible to clean up, that needs to be stated.”
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