Salazar green lights Shell's controversial Alaska drilling

A host of environmental groups issued a joint statement criticizing the decision.

“Oil and gas development is spreading rapidly across the Arctic,” said Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe. “Before moving forward we need to develop the missing science about the Arctic Ocean and the impacts of drilling and a better comprehensive plan for protection of the Arctic.”

The groups noted that Interior's 2007-2012 offshore leasing program remains under court review, following an appellate decision earlier this year that found a key environmental analysis underpinning the program was inadequate.

Shell said the offshore Alaska region could hold large oil supplies. "Shell believes the Chukchi Sea could be home to some of the most prolific, undiscovered hydrocarbon basins in North America," Pete Slaiby, Shell's Alaska vice president, said in a statement, according to Reuters.

The exploration plan covers seven leases that Shell spent over $400 million to acquire at a 2008 lease sale, Interior said. Overall, Shell paid $2.1 billion for Chukchi Sea leases at that sale.