Shell Clears First Regulatory Hurdle to Drill in the Arctic

Published June 9, 2015

The Obama administration gave conditional approval for Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. to resume efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. On May 11, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM), approved Shell’s plans to drill in a section of the Chukchi Sea, called the Burger Prospect.

Shell, reports it has spent $7 billion on its exploratory efforts in recent years, and hopes to begin drilling this summer. BOEM’s approval is just a first step, so there is no assurance Shell will begin exploration this summer. The company received federal permission to drill in previously only to see its plans interrupted by legal challenges and the difficulties of working in the remote Arctic.

The BOEM approved a Shell plan to drill as many as six exploratory wells. The Burger prospect lies approximately 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright, Alaska and hundreds of miles from any major city. Studies have suggested the region could hold as much as 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil. 

Plan Safe, Says Government

Upon approving Shells plan, Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, issued a statement saying, “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. As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

Shell’s plan must meet conditions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act and be approved by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, before any drilling can commence.

A spokesman for Shell, Curtis Smith, told the Los Angeles Times, though the company expects more legal challenges as it pursues the other necessary permits and approvals, Shell has developed a more integrated planning practice including greater oversight of contractors.

“Our confidence in the current plan we put together is high,” Smith said. “As a result, we’re planning to drill this summer unless a federal agency or court action determines we will not.”

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.