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Is It Okay to Drill in the Arctic? It's Complicated, According to the Obama Administration

The administration is poised to green light Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean, while it has asked Congress to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling.
Photo by Lehtikuva Lehtikuva/Reuters

Royal Dutch Shell hasn't tried exploring for oil in the Arctic Ocean since its mishap-filled 2012 season, when one of its drilling vessels ran aground on an Alaskan island.

Now the company is closing in on a return to the Arctic this summer.

On Friday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an agency within the US Department of the Interior (DOI), began its 30-day review of Shell's new plan for oil exploration at six locations in the Chukchi Sea, which lie about 70 miles off the Alaska coast.


Environmental groups have criticized the review timeline as too hasty, while government officials say the timeframe is sufficient for a careful evaluation and public comment .

Shell's new plan includes using an extra drilling vessel as backup in case of a well blowout, extra support and oil spill response equipment, and more support vessel and aircraft trips to the drilling rigs.

Shell now has a drilling vessel bound for its Arctic staging port in Seattle. But the company still needs several major permits before it can resume Arctic exploration. "We are advancing our plans to continue exploration this summer — dependent upon successful permitting, clearing any legal obstacles, and our own determination that we are prepared to explore safely and responsibly," Shell spokesperson Kelly op de Weegh told VICE News.

'We've never seen an oil disaster like the kind of oil disaster that could happen in the Arctic Ocean.'

Shell's Arctic drilling plans have been a point of contention for environmental and Alaskan native groups since the federal government sold the leases in 2008. A flawed environmental analysis put the leases in legal limbo after 2012. But DOI conducted a new study and reaffirmed the leases at the end of March.

Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law group opposed to Shell's plans, thinks the government's decision to let the leases move forward puts the Alaskan Arctic at risk of an oil spill.


He also thinks it is bad climate policy.

Earlier this year, a study in the scientific journal Nature found that developing oil resources in the Arctic is incompatible with the international goal of keeping global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-Industrial Age levels.

"There's widespread consensus that we need to leave a lot of our known oil reserves in the ground," he told VICE New. "The Arctic Ocean is … a really prime example of a place that the Obama administration can and should exercise leadership on climate change."

While the Obama administration is green-lighting fossil fuel drilling in one Arctic region, it is seeking to bring it to prevent it in another.

Earlier this month President Obama finalized a recommendation that Congress permanently block energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) by designating it a federally protected wilderness area.

The Obama administration's seemingly contradictory policy is not surprising says Niel Lawrence, the Natural Resource Defense Council's Alaska director. "That's sort of business as usual in DC, where splitting the difference is a way of life," he told VICE News.

Related: Republicans want to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

However, it's debatable if opening up offshore drilling while preserving ANWR is really an even split, says Lawrence, because the stakes for oil drilling in the open ocean are much higher than they are on land. "We've never seen an oil disaster like the kind of oil disaster that could happen in the Arctic Ocean," he told VICE News. "It will make the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico look like a kitchen accident by comparison."


As Shell learned during their troubled 2012 drilling season, Arctic exploration means dealing with high winds, rough seas, shifting ice, and very sparse infrastructure. The nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles from Shell's prospective drilling sites.

DOI acknowledged the risks in February when it released an environmental impact statement concluding that over a 77-year timeframe there is a 75 percent chance of at least one large spill releasing more than 1,000 barrels of oil into the Arctic.

"It is probably the most challenging environment to work in … and, if there were a spill, it would be virtually impossible to clean up. There is no proven way to clean up oil in ice at this point," Heiman told VICE News.

While Heiman's organization would prefer that oil exploration doesn't expand past the 2 million acres currently leased in the US Arctic, they think the Obama administration's approach is genuinely balanced. Heiman said the group is reviewing Shell's new exploration plan.

"They have been very clear, that their [energy] policy is 'all of the above' and they have said from the beginning that there will be drilling in the Arctic Ocean," Heiman told VICE News. "Some people think they have locked up the Arctic Ocean and other people think they are letting the whole thing be drilled. In fact it's more … saying let's protect important areas and allow exploration on those areas that have already been leased, with the highest standards."


Bristol Bay, which is a nursery for 40 percent of America's wild seafood and an important fishing area for Alaska natives, is among those protected areas. In January, the president banned drilling in 10 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

Related: Animation shows alarming trend in the Arctic Ocean

This February, the administration proposed new safety regulations for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. The government is also about to release new offshore drilling regulations designed to prevent equipment failures like the one that contributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill five years ago in the Gulf of Mexico.

But according to Lawrence, no amount of oil spill protection will erase the conflict between the Obama administration's energy and climate policies. The day DOI reaffirmed Shell's leases, the president also pledged to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions ahead of global climate negotiations set to happen in Paris later this year.

"There is really only one rational policy about that oil if we're not just closing our eyes to climate change," Lawrence told VICE News. "There's no way safely to burn this stuff so we shouldn't be exploring for it in the first place."

Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller