Shell one step closer to drilling in Arctic

The Interior Department signed off on a plan Friday that brings Shell closer to drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast this year.

Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) approved Shell’s oil spill response plan for exploration in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea.

The approval is a victory for Shell, which has been pushing for years for federal approval to drill in the Arctic. But it’s a defeat for environmental groups that oppose drilling in the region.

Interior Department officials said Friday they subjected the oil spill response plan to additional scrutiny based on the lessons learned from the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The department imposed a series of new environmental and safety regulations as a result of the disaster.

“This decision has been based on our new standards and our commitment to ensure the highest degree of safety and environmental preparedness in the world,” Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes said.

The move comes several months after Interior conditionally approved Shell’s plan to drill up to six exploration wells in the sea, another key step toward drilling in the region.

BSEE Director James Watson stressed Friday that approval of the oil spill response plan does not authorize Shell to drill in the Chukchi seas. Before the department approves the necessary drilling permit, the department must still conduct several key inspections, among other things, he said.

Shell hopes to begin drilling in the region this summer. Interior said it is working to complete the necessary approvals quickly, while ensuring adequate oversight.

“We’ve committed to complete permitting decisions on a timely basis for Shell and for other energy companies,” Hayes said.

Under Interior’s beefed-up standards, Shell was required to prepare for a worst-case oil spill that was five times worse than a plan submitted before the Gulf spill. The company is also required to plan for extreme weather conditions and be capable of capping a runaway well, among other things.

The Interior Department must still approve Shell’s separate oil spill response plan for exploratory drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.