Interior Dept. OKs Arctic Drilling—With Limits

Shell's Fennica vessel. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.
Shell’s Fennica vessel. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.

The Obama administration approved Shell’s Oil’s plan for drilling in the Arctic Ocean on Wednesday. But for now, Shell is restricted on how deep it can drill.

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The Interior Department told Shell it can drill but not into any oil-bearing rocks. Even with that restriction, Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino called the permit an important approval.

“Based on the current ice forecast, we could begin drilling as soon as next week,” Baldino says.

The Interior Department limited the drilling depths because one of Shell’s key pieces of oil-spill prevention equipment, called a capping stack, is headed away from the Arctic right now.

“That capping stack is located on the motor vessel Fennica.”

Brian Salerno heads the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The icebreaker Fennica hit a rock and tore a 3-foot gash in its hull in early July. It’s about halfway through its weeklong journey to a shipyard in Portland, Ore.

“Fennica’s going the opposite direction. Until such time as F mks repairs and is able to return to Arctic w/capping stack, restriction will remain in place.”

Megan Baldino says Shell still expects to have the Fennica return to the Arctic in time to support drilling into the deeper, oil-bearing rocks beneath the sea floor.

Environmental groups called the government approval a dangerous mistake, given the twin risks of Arctic oil spills and global climate change.

They accused the administration of bending the rules for Shell.

“We’re not bending any rules,” Salero says. “We’re actually holding Shell to a very high standard.”

The federal permission also prevents Shell from drilling both its wells at the same time in order to protect walruses in the area.