US clears Shell to drill for oil in Arctic Ocean off Alaska
The US government has given Royal Dutch Shell the final permit it needs to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's north west coast for the first time in more than two decades.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said exploratory drilling can go ahead after the oil giant brought in a required piece of equipment to stop a possible well blowout in the Chukchi Sea.
The agency in July gave Shell permission to drill only the top sections of two wells because key safety equipment had not arrived.
It arrived on August 11 so Shell is free to drill into oil-bearing rock for the first time since 1991.
Environmental groups oppose drilling, saying industrial activity will hurt wildlife and companies have not shown they can clean up a spill in ice-choked water.
Opponents claim industrial activity in the Arctic will harm polar bears, Pacific walrus, ice seals and threatened whales already vulnerable from climate warming and shrinking summer sea ice.
The key equipment, called a capping stack, had been stuck on a vessel that needed repair in Portland, Oregon.
Since the vessel arrived last week, Shell is free to drill into oil-bearing rock, estimated at 8,000ft below the ocean floor.
Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said: "Activities conducted offshore Alaska are being held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards.
"We will continue to monitor their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship."
The US Geological Survey estimates that US Arctic waters hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, and Shell is eager to explore in a basin that company officials say could be a "game changer" for domestic production.
Shell bid 2.1 billion dollars on Chukchi Sea leases in 2008 and has spent more than 7 billion dollars on exploration there and in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast.
Shell hopes to drill two exploration wells during the short 2015 open-water season. It has until late September, when all work must stop. It has two drill vessels and about 28 support vessels in the Chukchi Sea.
The capping stack sits on a 380ft icebreaker that suffered hull damage on July 3 as it left Dutch Harbour, a port in the Aleutian Islands. The vessel, named the Fennica, was repaired in Portland and briefly delayed from leaving on July 30 by Greenpeace protesters in climbing gear hanging from a bridge over the Willamette River.