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 other drilling, air quality and other necessary permits. 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.
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.
A Shell spokeswoman welcomed the agency's decision, saying it added to the company's cautious optimism that it will be drilling on its Alaska leases this time next year.
There remain a list of authorizations and permits that Shell needs to proceed. Spokesman Curtis Smith said typically such permits have fallen in line after a development plan is approved. But he said air quality permits are somewhat different, in that they can be appealed by anyone who commented on them, and hold things up.
The Environmental Protection Agency has released for public review draft air quality permits for Shell projects in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. BOEMRE hasn't yet issued a decision on Shell's development plan for the Chukchi.
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