JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A key federal agency gave conditional approval Thursday to Shell Oil Co.'s plans to begin drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska's coast as early as next year.
Approval by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation, or BOEMRE, is contingent upon Shell securing drilling, air quality and other necessary permits and authorizations. But it represents a huge step toward Shell being allowed to start drilling in the Beaufort Sea.
Shell plans to drill up to four wells over two years in the Beaufort, beginning next year.
Michael Bromwich, BOEMRE's director, said the agency bases it decisions surrounding energy exploration and development in the Arctic on the best scientific information available.
"We will closely review and monitor Shell's proposed activities to ensure that any activities that take place under this plan will be conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," he said.
But conservationists criticized the decision, saying they do not believe the technology or infrastructure exists - in the case of Shell or any other company - to sufficiently respond to a spill in the Arctic. BOEMRE hasn't yet fully signed off on Shell's oil spill response plan though a company spokesman, Curtis Smith, said conditional approval is expected as early as next week.
Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles from where Shell plans to drill. She said the agency's decision Thursday flies in the face of "promises of reform" made by the administration after the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.
"This Administration is as willing as ever to rubber stamp dangerous drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean," she said.
Shell, in responding to critics, has said that if necessary it's prepared to deploy "the most robust Arctic oil spill response system known to industry." The company has said its oil spill response capability exceeds its "calculated worst-case discharge volume" for the wells proposed.