Interior backs Shell’s Arctic drilling plan

The Interior Department on Thursday backed Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast next year.

The Obama administration’s stance on Shell’s plans is closely watched by environmentalists that bitterly oppose Arctic drilling and Republicans who have decried what they call undue delays.

Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) conditionally approved the oil giant’s plan to drill up to four oil-and-gas wells over two years in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast.

Shell, which has for years been seeking a green light to drill in Arctic waters, must still receive several other approvals, including drilling permits and final EPA air permits, as well as other sign-offs from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But Thursday’s action nonetheless signals that the administration is moving toward allowing Shell to drill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem, where the company has vowed to employ a robust series of safety measures.

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“We base our decisions regarding energy exploration and development in the Arctic on the best scientific information available,” said BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich 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,” Bromwich said.

Interior has beefed up safety standards and scrutiny of oil industry plans in the wake of last year’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and has also undertaken further scientific reviews of the Arctic ecosystem.

The president of Shell’s U.S. operations said last week that he’s growing more confident that the Obama administration will allow the oil giant to drill off Alaska’s coast in 2012.

Shell, in a statement Thursday, cheered Interior’s action.

“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,” said spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh.

She added that BOEMRE was “thorough in its scientific and technical analysis of our plan, and we look forward to continued progress as we pursue the permits necessary to drill.”

The company is also seeking approval to start drilling next year in the adjoining Chukchi Sea.

Republicans have cast Shell’s years-long quest to drill in federal waters off Alaska’s northern coast as an example of federal roadblocks to domestic energy development.

The White House, under political pressure amid high gasoline prices, in May announced a series of steps to speed up domestic development, including a new inter-agency team to streamline Alaskan permitting.

Here’s more from BOEMRE’s announcement about Shell’s Beaufort Sea plan:

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 [exploration plan].

Environmentalists slammed the conditional approval of Shell’s Beaufort exploration plan.

“Scientific integrity and government accountability took their familiar back seat to oil company profits and power today,” said Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris in a statement, alleging the Obama administration has made a decision to “roll the dice with the Arctic.”

“BOEMRE’s decision to disregard science and gamble with a region that is crucial to endangered bowhead whales, seals, polar bears and other marine wildlife and that Native subsistence communities rely upon so heavily is inexcusable,” she said.

This post was updated at 4:58 p.m.