Royal Dutch Shell is expected to be granted the permits it needs to drill for oil in the Arctic seas north of Alaska, the US interior secretary has said, giving the go-ahead for one of the industry’s most controversial projects.
Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, said Shell had been demonstrating its equipment for preventing and containing an oil spill during drilling, and had so far met all the requirements set out by US regulators.
“There’s not going to be an oil spill,” he said. “I don’t expect there’s going to be a problem.”
Mr Salazar said it was “highly likely” that the permits would be granted.
He added that inspectors would be watching the drilling “24/7” and Shell and the oil industry would face “high risk” should anything go wrong.
“If there would be a problem, which one always has to anticipate, I believe that the response capabilities are there to arrest the problem in a very quick fashion and avoid environmental damage,” he said.
“If we were not confident that that were to happen, I would not let the permits go forward.”
He said that the interior department would soon set out plans for further sales of drilling leases in the Arctic to be held in 2016-17. In November, the department said the first of the new Arctic leases, in the Beaufort Sea, could be sold in 2015 but that has been put back by two years.
Plans to exploit the retreat of Arctic sea ice to drill for offshore oil and gas have become contentious following the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Environmental campaigners argue that a similar blowout during the drilling process would be even more serious, because the remote location and icy conditions would make stopping and cleaning up any leak more difficult, and the oil would disperse more slowly in colder water.
Shell acquired its leases to drill in the Arctic Chukchi and Beaufort seas for $2.2bn in 2005-08, and had first planned to drill in the summer of 2007 but was held up by a series of legal challenges and problems obtaining permits from the US authorities.
Under pressure from the industry and Republican politicians about the impact on employment caused by restrictions on drilling such as the six-month moratorium in the deep waters of the gulf that followed the BP spill, the Obama administration has been shifting to a more accommodating stance in its relations with oil companies.
Mr Salazar said oil and gas formed part of Mr Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy.
Having secured most of the necessary approvals to start drilling this summer, Shell now needs only the specific permits for the ten wells it plans to drill this year and in 2013.
Those are dependent on trials of its technology for capping off a leak, and for containing and recovering any spilled oil; both of which proved difficult for BP during the gulf spill.
The capping stack, intended to be put on top of a leaking well, was demonstrated successfully to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the offshore regulator, on Monday, and Shell intends to show its containment technology in action in the coming weeks.
The only remaining obstacle is the weather. The Arctic ice has retreated more slowly than expected this year, delaying Shell’s plans by about two weeks. The company expects to be able to move into position in late July or early August.
Greenpeace, the environmental group, says it is mounting one of its largest campaigns in an attempt to stop Shell’s drilling programme, and has already hit the company with fake adverts, press releases and a video.
Get alerts on Royal Dutch Shell PLC when a new story is published