ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Minerals Management Service on Monday conditionally approved plans by Shell Oil Co. to drill three exploratory wells next year in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the decision in Washington, D.C., and said a key component of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil is the environmentally responsible exploration and development of renewable and conventional resources.
"By approving this exploration plan, we are taking a cautious but deliberate step toward developing additional information on the Chukchi Sea," he said in a release.
Environmental groups bitterly oppose drilling. They say there has not been enough work to assess environmental risks in a sensitive marine ecosystem already stressed by climate change.
"There hasn't been enough science," said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program. "We don't know enough about the Arctic Ocean, particularly the Chukchi Sea, in the face of climate change."
Pew and other groups also say petroleum companies have not demonstrated an ability to clean up a spill in broken ice conditions, especially in the waters off northern Alaska.
Shell's subsidiary, Shell Gulf of Mexico, in 2008 paid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi. The sale was included in the Bush administration's 2007-2012 five-year oil and gas leasing program.
Shell proposes exploratory drilling in open water using a drill ship, an ice management vessel, an ice class anchor handling vessel, and oil spill response vessels. The closest proposed drill site is 60 miles off shore.
Salazar said the approval of Shell's plan is conditional upon close monitoring of drilling activities to ensure they are conducted in an environmentally safe manner.
He also noted that the 2007-2012 OCS plan is undergoing review in response to a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling. A three-judge panel in April found that the Bush-era Interior Department failed to consider the effect on the environment and marine life before it began the process to expand an oil and gas leasing program in the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi seas.
Shell officials called the MMS conditional approval a positive step but noted the company is still waiting for an air discharge permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.