Parts of America’s Arctic waters, long a battleground between environmentalists and the energy industry, will be open for oil and natural gas drilling in four years, the Obama administration said Tuesday -- the same day Shell announced it had successfully tested a new spill containment system for its planned Arctic exploration this summer.
Details will be released Thursday, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters the idea is to adopt "targeted leasing" -- opening some areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas for drilling while protecting others critical for native subsistence and ecosystem health.
Shell is awaiting the final permits to explore in the region this summer, and on Tuesday said a device to cap any spill was successfully tested in waters off Seattle. "The capping stack was deployed to a depth consistent with the shallow water scenario we will encounter off the coast of Alaska," the oil giant said in a statement.
How the industry prepares for spills has come under greater scrutiny since the 2010 BP oil spill disaster, where the containment system failed.
Environmentalists oppose drilling in America's Arctic due to the sensitive ecosystem it provides for polar bears, walruses, whales and seals.
"There is no viable way to clean up oil spilled into the Arctic Ocean," Kristen Miller of the Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement. "The Arctic is perhaps the most extreme region on the planet with subzero temperatures, hurricane force storms and long periods of darkness. Spill response capacity is practically nonexistent in these remote, icy waters -- the nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away."
Shell is required to have a flotilla of spill response boats should its capping system fail, and Salazar said no commercial drilling would proceed if Interior concludes that spills cannot be contained.
Shell's work "will be conducted under the closest oversight and most rigorous safety standards in the history of the United States," he said from Norway, where he and ministers of other Arctic nations were talking about the region's energy wealth.
Salazar was confident Shell would receive the final permits for exploratory drilling this summer.
"It is highly likely that the permits will be issued" because Shell has been in compliance so far, he said. In past years, and before strict standards, 30 exploratory wells were drilled in Alaska's Arctic waters with no harm, and before strict standards, Salazar noted.
Salazar added that other Arctic nations like Canada, Russia and Norway were busy developing Arctic energy fields and that the U.S. should also be a player as long as protections are in place.
"These resources, if developed safely, can be important components in the 'all of the above' energy strategy," he said in a speech at the Norway meeting. The strategy was crafted after Republicans accused President Barack Obama of blocking traditional energy in favor of renewables like solar and wind.
The Arctic areas will be part of Interior's five-year offshore lease plan being sent to Congress on Thursday.
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