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Feds give final approval to Shell's Arctic drilling plan

Feds give final approval to Shell's Arctic drilling plan
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The Obama administration has given Royal Dutch Shell the final approval it needs to drill into potential oil reserves beneath the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. 

The approval, issued by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) on Monday, gives the company the chance to drill deeper for oil than it has before.

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A Shell rig has already burrowed several thousand feet into the Arctic's sea floor, but officials had said the company couldn't go deeper because it didn't have the proper safety equipment on hand to prevent an accident.

Now that the equipment — a “capping stack” designed to shut in a well during a blowout — is on site, the BSEE has said Shell can drill deep enough to hit potential oil reservoirs beneath the Chukchi Sea off the northeastern coast of Alaska. 

“Activities conducted offshore Alaska are being held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards,” BSEE Director Brian Salerno said in a statement. 

“Now that the required well control system is in place and can be deployed, Shell will be allowed to explore into oil-bearing zones.”

Shell began drilling in the Chukchi’s Burger prospect on July 30 with hopes of finding oil before the end of the drilling season there in late September. 

But the company was only permitted to drill shallow wells and not into the rock containing oil until the capping stack was on hand.

The equipment is on board the MSV Fennica, an icebreaker that had been in Portland, Ore. for repairs. The vessel arrived on site last week despite protests from Greenpeace activists who had sought to delay its journey northward.

“This approval means the Obama administration is leaving the fate of the Arctic up to Shell this summer,” Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard said in a statement.

“The Obama administration should know better than to bend over backwards to approve such a reckless plan. The president has seen how big the movement to save the Arctic and to keep fossil fuels in the ground has become, and it’s only going to get bigger if he doesn’t put a stop to this catastrophic plan.”

The Obama administration’s approval of Shell’s drilling plans has angered environmentalists, who say the Arctic is too sensitive an ecosystem to permit oil drilling and risk a potential spill. 

Many major green groups released statements Monday slamming the BSEE’s final approval of the company’s drilling plan. 

“Today’s decision makes it final: President Obama is willing to allow the pristine Chukchi Sea to become an energy sacrifice zone and worsen climate disruption,” Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel said. 

“President Obama should know better -- Shell has no business in our Arctic Ocean, and he will bear responsibility for the damage that Shell wreaks there.”

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said the decision “goes against science, the will of the people and common sense.”

“Granting Shell the permit to drill in the Arctic was the wrong decision, and this fight is far from over. The people will continue to call on President Obama to protect the Arctic and our environment,” he said.

BSEE looked Monday to highlight its oversight of Shell’s drilling excursion. 

Federal officials are present on Shell oil rigs to monitor their drilling activities, the agency said, and they’re authorized to order drilling to stop if necessary.

The permit issued Monday also maintains previous restrictions on where Shell can drill, including a minimum spacing of 15 miles between oil rigs to prevent harming the region’s walrus population.

“We will continue to monitor their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship,” BSEE’s Salerno said.

—This post was updated at 4:18 p.m.