A proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean as early as this summer received initial permits from the Minerals Management Service office in Alaska at the same time federal auditors were questioning the office about its environmental review process.
The approvals also came after many of the agency’s most experienced scientists had left, frustrated that their concerns over environmental threats from drilling had been ignored.
Minerals Management has faced intense scrutiny in the weeks since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. An article in The New York Times reported that it failed to get some environmental permits to approve drilling in the gulf and ignored objections from scientists to keep those projects on schedule.
Similar concerns are being raised about the agency’s handling of a plan by Shell Oil to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.
The Shell plan has stirred controversy for many years among environmentalists and advocates of the endangered bowhead whale, which is legally hunted in the area for subsistence by Alaska Natives.
Opponents have argued that an oil spill would be virtually impossible to contain, given the region’s remoteness, its severe weather and ice and limited onshore support.