(Photo: Daniella Beccaria, AP)
WASHINGTON — Environmental groups deplored the Obama administration's decision to allow Arctic oil drilling, after the Interior Department granted conditional approval Monday for Shell Gulf of Mexico's plan to drill six wells off the coast of Alaska.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's approval of the drilling plan is just one step to allow drilling, and there are still 16 conditions that Shell must meet. The company must apply for and receive permits from the three other federal agencies and the state of Alaska to drill each well.
"Issuing this first permit is a slippery slope that could lead to environmental catastrophe for birds, other wildlife and people," said Audubon President David Yarnold. He called the approval "cynical partisan politics" and said it was "a public relations bone that the Obama administration is throwing to Shell" in an effort to deflect criticism of a global greenhouse gas agreement."
Shell has proposed drilling up to six wells within the Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles northwest of the Eskimo village of Wainwright. The Interior Department ordered a halt to a previous drilling plan after it ran into safety problems.
But on Monday, the Interior Department determined that a revised plan "would not cause any significant impacts" to human populations, the environment, historical places or endangered species.
"We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives," said a statement from Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior bureau that approved the plan.
The plan has led to protests in Seattle, where Shell is storing rigging equipment until it can be moved to the Arctic Ocean.
Shell did not return a call seeking comment