In a Marine Technology News article Thursday, the approval and limitations of one of the most controversial offshore drilling plans in recent history was carefully considered alongside the final vestiges of Arctic drilling restrictions. According to the article, Royal Dutch Shell has taken the preliminary steps towards actually drilling in Alaskan Arctic oil bearing zones, but a complex set of conditions must be met to lift the restrictions. In its news brief announcing the Shell Application for Permits to Drill (APD) approval, the US Department of Interior Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) described the permitted exploration and tight restrictions involved. After a multibillion dollar investment and many years of planning, Shell is now able to begin exploratory drilling at the Burger Prospect of the Alaskan Arctic Chukchi Sea during the drilling season from July to October. However, Shell is required to maintain a minimum of 15 miles between active drill rigs in compliance with a June 30th US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Letter of Authorization to protect the region’s walrus population.
This restriction prohibits simultaneous drilling at the Burger J and Burger V wells, due to their close proximity that is less than 15 miles apart. The BSEE APD also limits Shell’s exploratory drilling to the top sections of wells, prohibiting the type of activity that leads to the disruption of Arctic wildlife habitats and thermal pollution. The ADP requires Shell to allow BSEE inspectors to be present 24 hours a day, seven days a week to constantly monitor its drilling activity and enforce compliance. However, the next phase of drilling for Shell is within reach, that quite possibly could include oil bearing zone activity. According to BSEE, Shell could soon submit the required Application for Permit to Modify the APD, requesting reconsideration of the current restrictions. When Shell returns its M/V Fennica capping stack loaded vessel to the Alaskan Arctic capable of shutting in an uncontrollable leaking well, the company would become eligible for the BSEE modification. The damaged M/V Fennica vessel was sent to Portland, Oregon for repairs of a gash that could take weeks. Kelly op de Weegh, a Shell spokeswoman stated that the M/V Fennica will remain in Oregon until Shell is completely satisfied that, “a safe, permanent repair” has been made. For many environmental activists, Wednesday’s approval announcement was a very serious indication that crude oil drilling in the Arctic is headed in the wrong direction.
The coincidental location of Shell’s planned drilling in Alaska is an eerie reminder of the horrendous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. This tragic event is unquestionably one of the worst in history for the environment, involving over 11 million gallons of spilled oil. Not only is Shell planning to drill for a massive amount of offshore oil, but the energy conglomerate is aiming for disruption of the already impacted Arctic. Very little stands in the way of an inevitable transformation of the Alaskan Arctic. Environmental advocates and protection groups could challenge the BSEE permit approval legally, but Shell’s lobbying powers are overwhelming. Many conservationists expected the White House to apply its National Strategy for the Arctic Region in its consideration of the Shell permit application, but there is now obvious disappointment.