By Coral Davenport
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration gave conditional approval on Monday for Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc. to start drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean this summer.
The approval is a major victory for Shell and the rest of the petroleum industry, which has sought for years to drill in the remote waters of the Chukchi seas, which are believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas.
“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”
The Interior Department decision is a devastating blow to environmentalists, who have pressed the Obama administration to reject proposals for offshore Arctic drilling. Environmentalists say that a drilling accident in the icy and treacherous Arctic waters could have far more devastating consequences than the deadly Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010, when an oil rig explosion killed 11 men and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the water.
The move came just four months after the Obama administration opened up a portion of the Atlantic coast to new offshore drilling, adding a new chapter to the president’s environmental legacy.
On some fronts, President Obama has pursued the most ambitious environmental agenda of any president, issuing new regulations intended to curb climate change, working toward an international global warming accord, and using his executive powers to put public lands off-limits from development. But he has also sought to balance those moves by opening up untouched federal waters to new oil and gas drilling.
The Interior Department’s approval of the drilling was conditional on Shell’s receiving approval of a series of remaining drilling permits for the project.
“The approval of our Revised Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan,” said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell. “However, before operations can begin this summer, it’s imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner. In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator.”
Environmental groups denounced the move and said that Shell had not demonstrated that it can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean.
Both industry and environmental groups say that the Chukchi Sea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to drill. The area is extremely remote, with no roads connecting to major cities or deep water ports within hundreds of miles — which makes it difficult for clean-up and rescue workers to get to the site in case of an accident.
The closest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to a spill is over 1,000 miles away. The weather is extreme, with major storms, icy waters, and waves up to 50 feet high.
The sea is also a major migration route and feeding area for marine mammals, including bowhead whales and walruses.
“Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth,” said Susan Murray, a vice president of Oceana, an environmental group. “Shell’s need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk. Shell has not shown that it is prepared to operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and neither the company nor our government has been willing to fully and fairly evaluate the risks of Shell’s proposal.”
The Obama administration had initially granted Shell a permit to begin offshore Arctic drilling in the summer of 2012. However, the company’s first forays into exploring the new waters were plagued with numerous safety and operational problems. Two of its oil rigs ran aground and had to be towed to safety. In 2013, the Interior Department said the company could not resume drilling until all safety issues were addressed.
In a review of the company’s performance in the Arctic, the department concluded that Shell had failed in a wide range of basic operational tasks, like supervision of contractors that performed critical work.
The report was harshly critical of Shell management, which acknowledged that it was unprepared for the problems it encountered operating in the unforgiving Arctic environment.
But the administration contends that as long as Shell passes a final set of permit reviews, it can proceed to drill this summer.
The Obama administration has also issued new drilling safety regulations intended to prevent future accidents like the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010. Last month, the Interior Department proposed new rules to tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection against explosions in undersea oil and gas wells.
The 2010 explosion was caused in part when a section of drill pipe buckled, which led to the malfunction of a supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer on a BP well.
Correction: May 11, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the waters in which Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc. is conditionally approved to start drilling. It is only in the Chukchi Sea, not also in the Beaufort Sea.