Arctic drilling opponents gain momentum from Gulf oil spill
Exploratory drilling is scheduled for July in the waters off Alaska's northern shore. Environmental groups, reeling from the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill, are fighting to put those plans on hold.
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The agency concluded that a large spill was "too remote and speculative an occurrence" to warrant analysis, environmental groups said in a May 5 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to refuse to grant final permits needed for drilling.Skip to next paragraph
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A spokesman for the Department of Interior would not comment on the case. Shell is confident their case is a strong one. "The permit granted to us is quite robust and we expect that MMS will be successful in defending it," said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Alaska, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell.
Still, there's little question that Shell's quest to drill in the arctic this year could be halted by the federal government if it chooses to deny a few critical permits sought by the company.
Indeed, the Obama Administration had seemed last week to make it clear: "No additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told TV interviewers.
But awaiting the results of an investigation may not apply to Shell.
"We are moving forward with plans for drilling because we have not been told otherwise," says Mr. Smith.
When President Obama announced his new oil drilling policy for the Outer Continental Shelf [OCS] in mid-April, just before the Deep Horizon blowout, he placed key Alaska waters – like the sensitive Bristol Bay – off limits.
But he left the door open for further oil exploration, including leases Shell purchased in 2008 during the Bush Administration to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas - a critical feeding area for polar bears and a migratory route for Bowhead whales and myriad other species.
In making that exception, however, Secretary Salazar is requiring the US Geological Survey and MMS to identify gaps in scientific knowledge about arctic drilling that could impact future lease sales. That report is due in October.
In the near term, newly ordered safety reviews now being conducted will be considered, writes Julie Rodriguez, deputy press secretary at the Department of Interior in an e-mail.
"Secretary Salazar's review of safety issues on the [outer continental shelf] that President Obama ordered will help guide the Department's decisions on whether to approve Shell's applications for permits to drill for the five exploration wells they are proposing," she wrote. That report is due at the end of the month.
The department has established a new board to examine safety procedures for offshore drilling, and Salazar has been ordered to provide President Obama with a report by early next month, she notes.
Earlier this week, environmental groups filed regulatory appeals with the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Review Board over air pollution permits granted to Shell in April. The groups say the EPA looked only at air pollution emitted by the drilling rig – not by the half dozen or more other ships that will be sitting beside it.