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3 Factors Could Slow Arctic Drilling Despite Shell Go-Ahead

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During 2012, the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off a small island near Kodiak Island. PHOTOGRAPH BY U.S. COAST GUARD/AP

By Wendy Koch, National Geographic


Oil drilling in U.S. Arctic waters may return this summer now that Shell has cleared a key government hurdle. Still, an energy bonanza in the frigid north won’t happen anytime soon.

On Tuesday, shortly after the Obama administration pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its Department of the Interior gave Shell the preliminary go-ahead. Inteior approved its environmental review of Shell’s controversial lease for multiyear drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska. The energy-rich Arctic is drawing renewed interest because global warming is melting sea ice and making it potentially easier to develop oil and gas.

Shell, which drilled in the Arctic more than 20 years ago, is the only company now seeking U.S. permission to return. Other companies are drilling off the coasts of Norway and Russia, although low oil prices and international sanctions have prompted some to cut back. (Read about Norway’s offer of new Arctic leases.)

Shell’s plans are not affected by Interior’s January proposal to bar drilling in parts of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, which are home to whales, walruses, and polar bears. Shell aims to drill two “total depth” wells 8,000 feet deep—more than four times deeper than the “top holes” it attempted in 2012, when its rig ran aground and was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. (Learn why the U.S. Coast Guard blamed Shell.) It has not been back since.

Company spokesperson Curtis Smith says Shell now has a “more detailed playbook” of safety steps. Environmentalists aren’t convinced and continue their opposition. Shell also faces other challenges that include getting permits, drilling in a harsh climate, and uncertainty about how much oil it will find.

Environmental groups, which have filed dozens of lawsuits to delay Shell’s work and require more robust U.S. scrutiny, don’t want the company to open the way for more Arctic drilling.

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