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Shell Is Likely to Receive Permits for Oil Drilling Off Alaska


A version of this article appeared in print on June 27, 2012, on page A14 of the New York edition

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that it was “highly likely” that the agency would grant Shell permits to begin drilling exploratory wells off the North Slope of Alaska as early as next month.

Mr. Salazar, while acknowledging that the Arctic presented unique environmental and safety challenges for oil and gas operations, said he was confident that Shell would meet the Interior Department’s new standards for offshore drilling. He noted that Shell had successfully tested a new oil spill containment device in Washington State’s Puget Sound in recent days and said he believed the company’s claims that it could collect at least 90 percent of any oil spilled in the event of a well blowout.

“I believe there will not be an oil spill,” Mr. Salazar said in a telephone briefing from Trondheim, Norway, where he is participating in an international conference on Arctic drilling safety. “If there is, I think the response capability is there to arrest the problem very quickly and minimize damage. If I were not confident that would happen, I would not let the permits go forward.”

The Obama administration is on the cusp of opening a new Alaskan frontier in offshore oil and gas development as part of an energy strategy driven by a desire to expand domestic resource production and to answer Republican criticism that it is opposed to conventional energy sources. The Interior Department conducted a major oil and gas lease sale for the Gulf of Mexico this month, attracting $1.7 billion in bids. The administration has also issued a number of permits for major natural gas, solar and wind projects on public lands.

Also on Tuesday, officials announced that the Army Corps of Engineers had approved permits for a Canadian company to build 115 miles of new pipeline to carry oil from a petroleum depot in Cushing, Okla., to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Mr. Salazar announced that a 2012-17 offshore oil and gas leasing program to be released this week would include new tracts in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska, where Shell is planning to drill its exploratory wells this summer. But he said those sales would exclude sensitive environmental areas and wildlife migration and feeding waters, and would not be held until 2016 and 2017 to allow time for more scientific study.

Marilyn Heiman, an Arctic specialist at the Pew Environment Group, said the department’s new approach to leasing was a significant improvement.

“It’s becoming clearer and clearer that this administration has gotten the message that the Arctic is different and needs a more careful approach,” Ms. Heiman said in a telephone interview. “We’re still disappointed they are talking about new leasing when they already have millions of acres under lease. But the fact they pushed it back to do science and study community and subsistence needs sends a very strong signal.”

Other environmental advocates criticized the administration’s plans, saying they relied too much on Shell’s assurances and posed a danger to the irreplaceable Arctic ecology.

“Secretary Salazar says there’s not going to be an oil spill. That’s astonishing,” said Holly Harris, a staff attorney with Earthjustice based in Juneau, Alaska. “No oil company has ever come close to cleaning up 90 percent of spilled oil in the open ocean. The administration is hoping for the best but not preparing for the worst.”

Ms. Harris also questioned the Interior Department’s acceptance of Shell’s decision to test the containment system in Puget Sound rather than in the Arctic Ocean, where such a device has never been tried.


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