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US Gives Shell Green Light for Offshore Oil Drilling in the Arctic

Conservationists say the decision by the Obama administration to allow drilling in the Beaufort Sea repeats Bush era mistakes

Ed Pilkington

Conservationists fear the decision to allow Shell to drill for offshore oil in the Arctic will threaten polar bears and endangered animals. (Photograph: Hans Strand/ Hans Strand/Corbis)

Conservationist groups based in Alaska have accused the Obama administration of repeating the mistakes of George Bush after it gave the conditional go-ahead for Shell to begin drilling offshore for oil and natural gas in the environmentally sensitive Beaufort Sea.

The Minerals Management Service, part of the federal Interior Department, yesterday gave Shell the green light to begin exploratory wells off the north coast of Alaska in an Arctic
area that is home to large numbers of endangered bowhead whales and
polar bears, as well as walruses, ice seals and other species. The
permission would run from July to October next year, though Shell has
promised to suspend operations from its drill ship from late August
when local Inuit people embark on subsistence hunting.

condemned the decision to allow drilling, saying it would generate
industrial levels of noise in the water and pollute both the air and
surrounding water. Rebecca Noblin, an Alaskan specialist with the
conservation group the Centre for Biological Diversity,
said: "We're disappointed to see the Obama administration taking
decisions that will threaten the Arctic. It might as well have been the
Bush administration."

Whit Sheard, the Alaskan expert with the environmental group Pacific Environment,
accused the US Interior Department of "again trying to implement an
overly aggressive Bush-era drilling plan in one of the riskiest areas
on the planet to drill".

The question of offshore oil drilling in
the Arctic was one of the controversial environmental issues that
confronted the Bush administration. Its permission for exploration in
the Beaufort Sea, widely condemned by environmentalists, was struck
down last year by a federal court on grounds that it had failed
sufficiently to consider the impacts on bowhead whales and the
subsistence activities of Inuit populations.

The ruling was later set aside and Shell withdrew its drilling plans.

to the National Marine Fisheries Service, there are between 30,000 and
50,0000 bowhead whales in the world, with up to 9,000 of them feeding
in the Beaufort Sea. The whales migrate twice a year through the area
and are crucial to the subsistence economy of the Inupiat people.

experts warn that the bowhead stocks are sensitive to noise and could
be driven further off shore by the disruption of drilling. That in turn
would have an impact on their chances of survival, which have already
been harmed by early side-effects of global warming.

There are also fears that any drilling could lead to oil spills which would be impossible to clean up amid the Arctic's broken sea ice.

must now satisfy the authorities that it has met air and water quality
standards and safeguards for whale protection before it can begin
drilling. The oil company's head in Alaska, Pete Slaiby, said
objections had been taken into account.

"We sincerely believe
this exploration plan addresses concerns we have heard in the North
Slope communities which have resulted in the programmes being adjusted
accordingly," he said.

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