Obama Administration Approves Arctic Ocean Oil Drilling

Monday, August 17 2015

The Polar Pioneer rig in the Chukchi Sea on Aug. 5. Shell Oil photo.

The Obama administration has approved drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

On Monday the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement gave final approval to Shell Oil to drill into oil-bearing rocks in the Chukchi Sea about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright, Alaska. The decision gives the company until late September—about six weeks—to complete this summer’s exploratory drilling. 

“Our plan is to make the most of the time that we have in theater, and whatever we don’t accomplish this summer, we can potentially put plans in place to finish in 2016,” Shell spokesperson Megan Baldino said.

Shell’s Polar Pioneer rig began drilling on July 30, but Shell couldn’t get permission to drill into oil-bearing layers deep beneath the Chukchi sea floor until its missing icebreaker and the well-capping stack on its stern returned from the lower 48.

“Now that the capping stack is on hand, Shell is allowed to drill into potential oil-bearing zones at the Burger J site,” BSEE spokesman Greg Julian said.

Shell’s icebreaker, the Fennica, hit an uncharted rock on its way out of Dutch Harbor on July 3. It then sailed to Oregon for repairs. Greenpeace protesters swinging beneath a Portland bridge further delayed the Fennica.  

Environmentalists reacted with dismay to the Obama administration’s announcement. Monday’s approval of Arctic oil drilling comes a few days after the White House announced that President Obama’s upcoming visit to Alaska and the Arctic would focus on his push to fight climate change.

“Obama’s relationship with climate is a little schizophrenic,” Greenpeace USA director Annie Leonard said. “It just simply doesn’t make sense to recognize what a serious problem climate change is and then give permission for one of the most climate-disastrous projects that I can imagine: drilling in the Arctic. You’re either on one side or the other.”

The President will visit Alaska at the end of this month. The White House video promoting Obama’s trip as part of his legacy of leadership on protecting the climate did not mention his Administration’s support for Arctic drilling.

Federal inspectors have been living on board both of Shell’s Arctic drill rigs for the past two weeks of shallow drilling.

“Nothing noteworthy to report,” Greg Julian of BSEE said. “Things are going smoothly.”

Over the Aug. 8-9 weekend, Shell finished excavating a 40-foot-deep, mud-lined cellar in the sea floor for holding a blowout preventer.

Shell’s Megan Baldino declined to provide details on the progress of drilling since then, saying only, “we continue to make progress on the well.”

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