On Monday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) approved Shell’s application to drill even deeper into one of the company’s exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea. According to Fuel Fix, this gives Shell permission to “burrow into potential oil-bearing reservoirs thousands of feet below the seafloor that previously had been off limits.”
Shell’s drilling in Alaskan waters has been controversial since the Obama administration approved the action earlier this year. Furthermore, the decision was made despite the Interior Department’s own environmental impact assessment, which concluded that drilling for oil in the Chukchi carries a 75 percent risk that one or more large oil spills are likely to occur if oil leases are developed in the region. The forbidding temperature and harsh winters in the Arctic would make cleaning a spill even more difficult than cleaning the Deepwater Horizon spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – a region that is still reeling from the oil pollution.
While President Obama has made a significant effort to fight climate change and environmental pollution during his second term (e.g. investments in solar and passing the Clean Power Plan), his decision to allow oil drilling in such a sensitive ecological area has rankled many in the environmental community.
“Today’s decision makes it final: President Obama is willing to allow the pristine Chukchi Sea to become an energy sacrifice zone and worsen climate disruption,” Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel told ThinkProgress. “President Obama should know better — Shell has no business in our Arctic Ocean, and he will bear responsibility for the damage that Shell wreaks there.”
Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for the conservation group Oceana told Fuel Fix that the announcement was “disappointing.”
“Calls for the government to prioritize stewardship ahead of Shell have fallen on deaf ears,” he added.
Back in May, during a Q & A session on Twitter, the President was asked outright why he approved the Chukchi drilling.
.@BigBennyFL 2/ But since we can’t prevent oil exploration completely in region we’re setting the highest possible standards
— President Obama (@POTUS) May 28, 2015
The President said that it was not possible to prevent oil exploration completely in the region, so instead the government will hold Shell to “the highest possible standards.” He added that his administration “already rejected Shell’s original proposal as inadequate which shows we’re serious.”
Which, in truth, is not really an adequate argument.
Shell’s deadline for drilling in the Arctic is September 28. Past that point, regulators say they will not be able to explore for oil below the bottom of the Burger J well that was modified for deeper drilling on Monday. Shell will be allowed to continue excavating a 20-foot by 40-foot hole at another well that is approximately nine miles from the Burger J well.
Drilling on the Burger J well had been halted while the MSV Fennica, an icebreaker equipped with critical emergency equipment, was berthed in Portland for repairs. The Fennica was prevented from returning to the drill site by Greenpeace protesters in late July, but has since rejoined Shell’s exploratory crew.