Shell wins federal approval to drill for oil off Alaska coast

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Interior Department has given Shell approval to drill oil exploration wells in two leaseholds in the Beaufort Sea, which could lead to the first drilling in more than a decade in this area off the north coast of Alaska.

Shell Alaska general manager Pete Slaiby hailed the decision as "another positive step towards the ultimate goal of drilling in 2010."

But environmental groups criticized the move. "There is no safe way to drill in the Beaufort Sea," said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection at the Sierra Club. "Cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic's broken sea ice is next to impossible, and where there is drilling, there are oil spills." He said a spill could threaten polar bears and bowhead whales.

The two leases were obtained by Shell in 2005 and 2007. The sales are not affected by a recent court decision that sent the current leasing program back to the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service for additional analysis.

Shell plans to drill two exploration wells in the far western area of Camden Bay during the July-to-October open-water drilling season next year, using a drill ship retrofitted for operations in arctic Outer Continental Shelf waters. The leases are about 16 and 23 miles north of Point Thompson, Alaska. The company still needs some permits.

"The Minerals Management Service is committed to responsibly developing offshore energy resources," MMS Director Liz Birnbaum said in a statement Monday. She said the MMS would "ensure that all activities are conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner."

But the Sierra Club's Manuel said, "Instead of drilling for more dirty oil, we can shift to clean energy that will create jobs, combat global warming, and keep our wildlife and wild places intact."

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