Administration formally starts review of Shell’s Arctic drilling plan

The Obama administration formally kicked off its full review Friday of Royal Dutch Shell’s application to restart oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Shell hopes to drill an exploratory well this summer in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, and it has a lease on the area’s drilling rights. But before Shell can drill, its detailed drilling plan must pass federal muster.

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The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said Friday that it completed its preliminary review of Shell’s March 31 application and determined that it can move on to full review.

“We will be carefully scrutinizing this revised [exploration plan] to determine whether it meets stringent environmental and regulatory standards,” James Kendall, the director of BOEM’s Alaska offshore region, said in a statement.

BOEM has 30 days to review the application and prepare an environmental assessment of it. The agency also released the plan publicly and is inviting public comment on it.

Shell’s application still has to go through various other federal approvals, including reviews for safety, protection of wildlife and wastewater disposal plans.

Shell’s Arctic drilling has been under close scrutiny since it drilled an exploratory well in 2012 and its rig later ran aground on an Alaska island after a severe winter storm.

The company said it was pleased to pass the first part of the application process.

“The execution of our plan remains contingent on achieving the necessary permits, legal certainty and our own determination that we are prepared to explore safely and responsibly,” Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said in a statement. “We continue to work on securing the final permits needed to continue exploration.”

Environmentalists immediately blasted the plan.

“Drilling in the Arctic is a recipe for disaster,” Neil Lawrence, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Alaska program, said in a statement. “The harsh conditions in the region make it all-but impossible to clean up the inevitable oil spills. The department’s rush to allow Shell back to the Arctic is foolhardy, misguided and wrong.”

Susan Murray, deputy vice president of Oceana, said the decision is disappointing, and that Shell doesn’t deserve another chance.

“Shell’s 2012 failures demonstrated clearly that it is not prepared to operate safely or responsibly in the Arctic Ocean,” she said. “There is no compelling reason for the rush to give Shell another chance this summer.”

Shell faces another hurdle in its plan to drill in the Arctic. Six Greenpeace activists are currently camped out on one of the ships carrying equipment through the Pacific Ocean to Alaska, and Shell is seeking a federal court order to remove them.