Drill, Baby, Drill: Obama Administration OKs Oil Drilling in Arctic off Alaska

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McClatchy Newspapers

Drill, Baby, Drill: Obama Administration OKs Oil Drilling in Arctic off Alaska

by
Erika Bolstad

A Walrus sitting on melting ice, basks in the sun on the Chukchi Sea, between Alaska and Russia. (Photo: Greenpeace)

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department today gave the go-ahead for
Shell Oil to begin drilling three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea,
a move that opens the door for production in a new region of the
Arctic.

"This is progress," said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican
on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Today's
announcement from the MMS is an encouraging sign that Alaska's oil and
natural gas resources can continue to play a major role in America's
energy security."

The
Interior Department's Minerals Management Service signed off on a plan
that allows Shell to drill up to three exploration wells during the
July-to-October open-water drilling season. The company's proposal
calls for using one drill ship, one ice management vessel, an ice-class
anchor-handling vessel and oil spill response vessels, the Interior
Department said. The closest proposed drill site is more than 60 miles
to shore and about 80 miles from Wainwright.

"Our
approval of Shell's plan is conditioned on close monitoring of Shell's
activities to ensure that they are conducted in a safe and
environmentally responsible manner," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
said today in a statement announcing his decision. "These wells will
allow the department to develop additional information and to evaluate
the feasibility of future development in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell,
Conoco Phillips and other companies last year paid more than $2 billion
for leases in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska. The
companies and state officials believe the offshore reserves could power
the Alaska economy for decades.

But the potential offshore
development is of concern to native Alaskans and environmentalists.
Native groups along the northern coast worry the noise of offshore
development could chase away bowhead whales and other subsistence
foods. They, along with environmentalists, are concerned about the
limited technology for cleaning up oil spills in icy water.

"Obviously
we're disappointed," said Marilyn Heiman, the U.S. Arctic program
director for the Pew Environment Group. "A spill could happen from an
exploratory well just as easily as it could from a production well.
They have not yet demonstrated they have the ability and the expertise
to clean up an oil spill, especially in the darkness, the extreme
weather and the icy conditions."

The Bush administration's
five-year plan for oil and gas exploration off the U.S. coast is under
review by the Obama administration. Salazar has held public hearings,
including a meeting in April in Anchorage where then-Gov. Sarah Palin
and her replacement, Sean Parnell, spoke in favor of offshore
development. The agency is still considering whether to let the plan
continue through 2012 or write a new one.

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