Agence France-Presse

Shell begins Arctic Sea drilling hailed as breakthrough for oil exploration

A Greenpeace environmental activist covers the logo of the Shell oil company to protest on May 10, 2012 against the heading of the an icebreaker for Shell's Arctic oil drilling project in the north of Alaska.


Michal Cizek

Royal Dutch Shell started drilling in the resource-rich Chukchi Sea off Alaska early today, marking a historic moment for the future oil exploration already seeing pushback from environmental activists, reported The Associated Press.  

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Shell was barred from drilling there for years due to federal restrictions and a legal case driven by environmental concerns. The company has spent six years and $4.5 million trying to resolve the issue, according to the Los Angeles Times

US regulators on August 30 gave Shell permission to drill a preliminary 1,400 feet but restrictions on oil-bearing zones remain in place due to Shell's inability to meet air-quality demands from Environmental Protection Agency, said Reuters

Still, the Shell people were pretty excited today. "It's the first time a drill bit has touched the sea floor in the U.S. Chukchi Sea in more than two decades," the company's Alaska head Pete Slaiby announced, according to the Associated Press. "We look forward to continued drilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to adding another chapter to Alaska's esteemed oil and gas history."

It's not a chapter Alaska's vocal environmental activists want written, with the local Wilderness League condemning the move as "yet another sign from the Obama administration that they are putting the whims of a corporate giant over the future of one of our nation's most valued natural treasures," Reuters cited the group's statement as saying. (Such attention is not likely to be welcomed by a campaigning Obama.)

The Arctic waters are indeed quite a treasure. With the Chukchi and Beaufort seas believed to contain some 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to AP, today's drilling marks the opening of a whole "potential new energy frontier," said the LA Times

But the company has a lot of work ahead and is not likely to complete a well until next year, said Slate. They also need to get an oil spill containment barge at the drilling site as requested by the Department of the Interior's August 30 compliance order, which allowed for today's drill, reported the LA Times

The drilling, which began at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, marks the first such work in the area since the early 1990s, a time in which "far less regulatory scrutiny was placed on the delicate ecosystem of the Far North," noted the LA Times. Many activists worry that work by Shell or others opens up the possibility of an oil spill, which would ruin the region's fragile environment.

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Tagged: United States.