US decision to open Arctic to Shell drilling sparks green fury

Groups warns US government approval of oil firm’s resumed exploration in risky polar waters spells environmental disaster

Icebergs in eastern Greenland (Flickr/ Mariusz Kluzniak)

Icebergs in eastern Greenland (Flickr/ Mariusz Kluzniak)

By Alex Pashley

The Obama administration approved Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to restart drilling off the coast of Alaska on Monday, three years after it was forced to halt operations following a series of safety failures including an oil rig fire.

The Anglo-Dutch company wants to begin drilling up to six wells in water about 40 meters deep from this summer on the condition authorities in Washington and Alaska grant it permits.

Green groups criticised the move and warned of potential spills in fragile Arctic conditions, with insufficient means to respond to leaks.

Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management which approved the plans, said it had taken a “thoughtful approach” recognising the “significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region.”

But environmentalists say drilling is more dangerous than in warmer seas, and could result in disasters on a grander scale than the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, which gushed 5 milion barrels of crude into the ocean.

And if the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming, that Arctic oil is “unburnable”, British scientists said in January.

Backward move

Without proven technologies to clear up possible spills, offshore drilling was “too great a risk to America’s Arctic”, said Margaret Williams, WWF’s managing director of US Arctic programmes.

The “decision to move closer to allowing fossil fuel extraction from the Chukchi Sea — home to majestic wildlife and a place where extreme weather, gale-fore winds, and rough seas make operations and response to spills extremely difficult — is a backward move at this time.”

Shell stopped Arctic drilling in 2012 after the failure of safety equipment to tackle spills. The rig it was using then ran aground after being towed back to port.

A firm working for Shell, Noble Drilling was handed $12 million in fines and payments to communities. The return to the Arctic comes after years of legal challenges. Shell called the decision an “important milestone“.

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Susan Murray, vice-president of environmental group Oceana, said in comments reported by the Guardian: “Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth.

“Shell’s need to validate its poorly planned investment in the Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk.”

In its campaign against Arctic drilling, the grass roots organisation Sierra Club said: “inviting a near certain oil spill that cannot be cleaned up, the Obama Administration should focus on developing clean energy and leave dirty fuels in the ground.”

Shell estimates that the Arctic holds around 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its yet-to-find oil.

Cuba OKs Total

On Monday, French energy giant Total SA signed an agreement to explore offshore oil with Cuban state oiler, CubaPetroleo (Cupet) in a deal brokered during President Francois Hollande’s visit to the Caribbean island.

The move sees Total return to drilling after abortive attempts which came up dry in the 1990s.

Last week Cuba announced it had new data revealing billions of barrels of oil beneath its Gulf of Mexico waters.



That’s compared to 124 million barrels of proven crude oil reserves Cuba had as of this January, according to Oil and Gas Journal, the US Energy Information Administration reported.

Five months after a thaw in US-Cuban relations, Hollande called for the trade embargo to be lifted and said France “would be the first among Western nations to be able to say to the Cubans that we will be at their side if they decide themselves to take needed steps towards opening.”

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