Royal Dutch Shell has secured a limited drilling permit from the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to drill one exploration well in the Beaufort Sea, off of northern Alaska.
The national agency also approved a similar drilling permit for the drilling approximately 1,400ft down in the Chukchi Sea three weeks ago, as it could not bring required oil-spill equipment to the site.
Shell’s current permit will be bound by similar restrictions as the Chukchi permit, and will not drill any oil or gas-bearing zones.
Jim Watson, In a statement the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director, said [the government]: "Has set the bar high for exploration activities in the Arctic, and any approved operations must meet those standards."
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the approval is a major milestone for the company, as it plans to start drilling in a couple of days and will anchor its Kulluk drill rig, once the Inupiat Eskimo whale hunt season is over.
Shallow drilling in the Chukchi Sea will also resume with plans to re-anchor the Noble Discoverer rig at its Burger prospect to commence drilling.
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"Drilling we complete this year will position us nicely for 2013," Smith said.
The decision has however been criticised by environmentalists who said that setbacks faced by Shell demonstrate the pitfalls of offshore Arctic oil development.
Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity Alaska director, said: "Letting Shell do top-hole drilling and other preparatory activities when they are clearly not ready to respond to an oil spill is like telling a drunk driver that as long as he stays off the freeway everything should be OK."
Shell has spent more than $4.5bn during four years preparing for work in the Chukchi, where it plans to drill three well and two wells in the Beaufort Sea.