Feds Move Shell Closer to Chukchi Drilling this Summer

Shell’s effort to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea has cleared another hurdle. The Interior Department today approved the 2008 Arctic lease sale where Shell spent more than $2 billion to purchase drilling rights.

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A court challenge forced the government to re-examine the environmental impact of the sale. That’s why the feds are announcing their approval now of an auction that actually took place seven years ago.

The decision clears the way for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to officially consider Shell’s off-shore drilling plan. Shell hopes to send two rigs to the Chukchi this summer, with each serving as the relief rig for the other, in case of a blowout.

Shell drilled two partial wells in Arctic waters in 2012, in a season beset by problems. Company spokeswoman Megan Baldino says the affirmation of the lease sale means Shell can proceed with its plans for Arctic drilling, but it isn’t the final green light.

“Of course, that is all contingent on getting all the permits, legal certainty, then our own determination that we’re prepared to do it safely and responsibly,” she said.

In a written statement announcing the decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the Arctic “an important component of the Administration’s national energy strategy” and says they are taking a balanced approach.

Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe, who filed the environmental challenge against the lease sale, says he’s disappointed in what he describes as a rushed process.

“But Interior still has time to make better decisions when evaluating Shell’s drilling plan. And we sincerely hope that it says no to that plan,” he said.

Grafe says he’ll continue to watch the regulatory process, which will include a public comment period on Shell’s exploration plan. He says each of his clients, mostly environmental groups since the Native Village of Point Hope dropped out of the lawsuit, will have to evaluate whether to continue.

Meanwhile, Shell has two drilling rigs underway from Asia, the Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer, a drill ship it also used in 2012. The rigs are heading north in the Pacific. A Greenpeace ship is in pursuit, with activists on board, blogging photos.