Shell one step closer to Chukchi Sea drilling


WASHINGTON D.C. (Alaska Dispatch News) -- U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has validated the 2008 sale of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, a decision that brings Royal Dutch Shell a step closer to winning approval of drilling in those remote Arctic waters.

Jewell issued a record of decision approving a court-ordered revision of the environmental impact statement that was supposed to have been completed prior to the Feb. 6, 2008, lease sale held by the Bush administration's Minerals Management Service. It was the second court-ordered rewrite completed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that replaced the MMS. A previous supplemental environmental impact statement was issued by BOEM in 2011 and approved by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The new supplemental environmental impact statement is a thorough analysis of the impacts oil leasing is expected to have in the Chukchi region, Interior officials said in a statement.

“The Arctic is an important component of the Administration’s national energy strategy, and we remain committed to taking a thoughtful and balanced approach to oil and gas leasing and exploration offshore Alaska,” Jewell said in the statement. “This unique, sensitive and often challenging environment requires effective oversight to ensure all activities are conducted safely and responsibly.”

Jewell’s record of decision is not about Shell’s plan for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi. But it allows BOEM to proceed with its formal process of reviewing Shell’s most recent Chukchi exploration plan, which envisions two drill rigs operating simultaneously to complete six wells, likely over multiple seasons. While the supplemental environmental impact statement was pending, all exploration activities on the leases sold in 2008 were suspended, under court order.

Shell is hoping to drill this year, resuming operations that started in its ill-fated 2012 season, which ended with the grounding and wreck of the Kulluk drill ship. The company has already begun mobilizing ships and equipment in anticipation of winning approvals to drill. Before it is allowed to do so, Shell must get BOEM approval of that plan, along with approvals from BOEM’s sister agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and various approvals from other agencies.

Representatives of the environmental groups that filed the lease-sale lawsuit said they were disappointed with Jewell’s decision, and they cited BOEM estimates of oil-spill risks as justification for keeping the Chukchi leases on hold. BOEM’s revised analysis predicts two large oil spills are likely to happen over a seven-decade period, should exploration occur and production follow.

“The industrial oil development that Interior hopes will flow from its decision to approve the Chukchi lease sale gives us a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill and a 100 percent chance of worsening the climate crisis,” Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “I don’t like those odds.”

“This is a step in the right direction,” Alaska Oil and Gas Association president Kara Moriarty said in a statement. “The Arctic offshore is the next chapter of Alaska’s oil and gas success story, and today’s decision clears another significant hurdle.”


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