Obama gives final approval to Arctic drilling

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The Obama administration gave its final stamp of approval Wednesday to Shell Oil Company's application to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

Under the approval, Shell can start drilling exploratory wells as soon as its fleet arrives at its prospect in the Chukchi Sea, about 140 miles off Alaska's northwest coast.

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But the two “application to drill”s approved by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) included key restrictions that bar Shell from drilling in areas known to contain oil, since its safety equipment is not yet fully ready.

The decision is a major loss for environmentalists, who have tried various efforts through courts, federal agencies, protests and other means to stop Shell from drilling the first wells in the United States’ portion of the Arctic in years.

The issue has quickly become a top rallying point for green groups, while the oil industry has stepped up its efforts to open drilling in one of the best prospective offshore areas in the world.

“Without question, activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards,” BSEE Director Brian Salerno said in a statement.

“Without the required well-control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones. As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship.”

To drill in oil-bearing areas, Shell must have a capping stack available, a key piece of equipment meant to contain well blowouts. But its capping stack is on the MSV Fennica, an ice-breaking ship that is heading to Oregon for a repair to its hull.

Until that ship is at the drilling site, Shell’s operations will be restricted.

Shell has stated that it aims to start drilling this month.

The federal approvals carry numerous restrictions on the drilling. The company can only drill one well at a time in order to protect endangered walruses, among other strict wildlife restrictions.

BSEE inspectors will be on the two rigs constantly, and Shell will be limited in its drilling timeframe, its well being subject to specific safety, equipment and operational requirements.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, another Interior Department agency, first approved Shell’s drilling plans in May. But the company had to obtain numerous other approvals, including those from the Fish and Wildlife Service and Wednesday’s BSEE permits.

Environmentalists were disappointed with BSEE’s approval and said that Arctic drilling brings safety, pollution, climate, wildlife and other risks that were ignored.

“President Obama and his administration made the wrong decision today for our Arctic and our climate,” Cindy Shogan, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.

“This decision puts the fate of the fragile Arctic Ocean, and our climate future, in the hands of Shell Oil. The Obama administration may have given Shell the go-ahead for risky and reckless drilling in the Arctic Ocean, but this is only the beginning.”

Greens have pledged to keep fighting against Arctic drilling. As part of that, they are keeping a close eye on every aspect of Shell’s activity to spot any mishaps or violations.

Shell tried to drill exploratory wells in 2012, leading to a string of mishaps that culminated in the grounding of its drilling rig on an Alaska island.