By Ted Land
Channel 2 News
12:52 PM AKST, December 16, 2011
Shell Oil Company’s exploration plan for summer 2012 offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea was conditionally approved by the Department of the Interior on Friday.
Among the conditions in the approval is a measure which requires Shell to cease drilling in areas where there may be oil, 38 days before the start of November, a time when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) anticipates the sea will freeze over.
The open water season in the Arctic, during which exploration is feasible, lasts just a few months, July through October.
The measure is "designed to mitigate the risk of an end-of-season oil spill," said a BOEM press release, by allowing ample time for cap and containment, as well as cleanup before the ice sets in.
"We are still evaluating the conditions outlined in the approval, including the stipulation that potentially limits the duration of Shell’s Chukchi drilling season," wrote Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith in a statement. "We are concerned this unwarranted restriction could severely impact our ability to deliver a complete Chukchi program."
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) called the 38 day condition a "last-minute monkey wrench into Arctic development."
"I am concerned that today’s short-sighted decision is influenced by election year politics instead of the long-term energy and jobs needs of our country," he wrote in a statement.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said some of the conditions "seem to be a response to newspaper ads, rather than founded in science.”
“This arbitrarily curtails an already a very short drilling season, unnecessarily putting the project at risk," said Murkowski.
One thing Shell still needs is approval of its oil spill response plan, which the federal government is examining separate from the exploration plan.
Shell plans to drill up to 6 exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea next summer, 3 on a prospect named Burger, which the company says could provide a long-term source of domestic energy.
The company thinks Burger could hold at least a billion barrels, which would put it among the top 10 largest oil fields in the United States.
A coalition of environmental groups in a press release called the conditional approval "the latest in a series of reckless decisions about America’s Arctic Ocean."
"There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s extreme conditions and there is significant dearth of scientific information, making it impossible to understand the impacts of Shell’s activities," wrote the Alaska Wilderness League.
Shell is also planning to drill exploration wells in the nearby Beaufort Sea.
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