Government approves Shell’s Arctic Ocean drilling plan, puts vital habitat at risk

Arctic Ocean drilling puts polar bears, walrus and other species in danger.

Credit: Michael Bamford, flickr.

Alaska’s waters and northern coast are at risk because of the federal government’s conditional approval of Shell’s Arctic Ocean drilling plans.

On May 11, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management conditionally approved Shell’s plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea off the northwestern coast of Alaska, putting sensitive habitat at risk of an oil spill and other dangers.


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This approval is the most significant permit Shell needs to proceed in 2015, following a disastrous 2012 drilling season.

“In addition to more intense drilling activity in the Chukchi Sea ... Arctic Ocean drilling and production put polar bears, walrus and other species in danger, and threatens Alaska Native villages"

“The 2015 exploration plan doubles the risk of an oil spill that could affect the sensitive coastline of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska compared with previous Chukchi drilling plans. The plan also poses hazards to several sensitive areas offshore which President Obama withdrew from future offshore lease sales,” said Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society. “In addition to more intense drilling activity in the Chukchi Sea than proposed previously, Arctic Ocean drilling and production put polar bears, walrus and other species in danger, and threatens Alaska Native villages that depend on the ocean as a vital subsistence resource.”

Shell must seek approvals and permits from other agencies before it can move forward with oil and gas drilling, but the announcement is a step in the wrong direction—and a dark omen for the Arctic.

BOEM previously estimated that that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills occurring if drilling and production moves forward in the Chukchi Sea. To make matters worse, the Chukchi Sea lacks U.S Coast Guard facilities or infrastructure to support a major oil-spill response.

Nobody should be drilling off the coast of Alaska, but Shell’s track record is particularly scary—a series of blunders during the 2012 drilling season illustrated that the industry cannot safely operate in Arctic waters, and the oil industry lacks the technology to recover oil from icy—or even temperate—ocean waters in the event of a major spill.

The federal government has not made several essential changes to drilling plans that would prevent deaths, injuries and major spills, as recommended by expert committees established after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. Those measures would include increasing liability limits substantially, protecting whistleblowers, creating needed Arctic onshore infrastructure, and finalizing critical Arctic-specific and blowout preventer standards.

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