The Interior Department on Wednesday gave final approval for Shell to do limited offshore drilling in the Arctic, while not allowing it to actually tap into oil until all safety measures are in place.
The agency's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced the approval amid staunch criticism by environmentalists that the administration is tempting fate by moving forward with the drilling approvals and that a spill in the icy waters is inevitable.
"Without question, activities conducted in offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards," said Brian Salerno, the bureau's director.
Salerno emphasized that the approvals do not allow Shell to begin drilling in Alaska until it has all necessary hardware in place. At this point, the wells they drill can only be exploratory in nature and the company must re-apply for reconsideration after the hardware has arrived at the site.
The bureau says Shell is not permitted to drill into "oil-bearing zones because, to do so, BSEE requires that a capping stack be on hand and deployable within 24 hours." The device is necessary for preventing an oil spill in the shallow Arctic seas. The device would cap the well if an accident occurred in which oil could not be stopped from spilling into the sea.
Salerno notes that "[w]ithout the required well-control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones. As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship."
The agency says Shell has the device, but it is currently on a vessel that is heading back to Portland, Ore., for repairs. "If and when the [ship] is capable of being deployed in the Chukchi Sea and Shell is able to satisfy the capping stack requirement, the company may submit an application for permit to modify the [current permits] and request to have this restriction reconsidered," the agency said.