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Obama administration gives conditional OK to Shell Arctic drilling plan

The Obama administration on Monday announced conditional approval for Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. to resume its long and troubled efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean, a decision that drew broad backlash from environmental  groups that warned of the risks of operating in the extreme conditions off the coast of Alaska. Shell has spent more than $5 billion on its Arctic plans in recent years and has previously received federal permission to drill. But its plans have been repeatedly interrupted by legal challenges, technical problems and the formidable perils of working in the Arctic.On New Year’s Eve 2012, a Shell drill rig broke free from a tow line and ran aground in stormy conditions in the Gulf of Alaska. Last year, the company abandoned plans to pursue summer drilling after

a federal appeals court ruled that the permitting process had been flawed.This time, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, Shell and government regulators are better prepared.lRelated
Nation NowShell abandons plan for Alaska offshore drillingSee all related The agency approved a Shell plan to drill up to six exploratory wells, starting with two this summer, in a relatively shallow section of the Chukchi Sea called the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles west of Wainwright, Alaska, in the Arctic Ocean. The approval, while conditional, clears the way for Shell to seek other required federal permits before it can begin drilling. 

“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska natives,” Abigail Ross Hopper, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.” Environmental groups vowed to fight the plan, which still must meet conditions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement must also approve the plan. Environmental groups are also challenging Shell’s Arctic plans in other ways, including a lawsuit that questions the company’s plan for responding to spills.“As was unfortunately demonstrated in 2012, Shell is not prepared to operate in remote and unforgiving Alaskan waters,” said Michael Levine, a lawyer for Oceana. “Today’s approval is further evidence that government agencies are willing to give in to to Shell’s need to validate its investments rather than taking a hard look at the risks to important Arctic resources.”In Seattle, where Shell has leased port space with the goal of making the city its hub for Arctic drilling, Mayor Ed Murray said last week that the company would need to seek a new city permit before proceeding with the plan.A spokesman for Shell, Curtis Smith, said the company expected more legal challenges as it pursued other necessary permits.”Our confidence in the current plan we put together is high,” Smith said. “As a result we’re planning to drill this summer unless a federal agency or court action determines we will not.”Follow @yardleyLAT on Twitter for energy and environmental news.   Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

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