Critics Worry Obama’s Arctic Drilling Plan Could Spell Disaster

PHOTO: Salvage teams conduct an assessment of Shells Kulluk drill barge, which ran aground in 2012.Tim Aubry/AFP/Getty Images
Salvage teams conduct an assessment of Shell's Kulluk drill barge, which ran aground in 2012.

The Obama administration’s conditional approval for Shell to resume drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean is a major victory for the Anglo-Dutch oil giant and a crushing defeat for environmentalists.

For years, Shell has eyed the icy waters of the Chukchi Sea, a remote area off the coast of Alaska considered by both environmental groups and industry officials to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to drill for oil. The closest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to an oil spill is over 1,000 miles away, making it difficult for rescue and cleanup crews to reach the area in the event of an accident.

"This is a region in the world that doesn’t tolerate cutting corners," Tim Donaghy, senior research specialist for Greenpeace, told ABC News.

"If something bad were to happen we won’t be able to clean it up correctly," Donaghy said before adding that a spill would have "terrible consequences for both the ecosystems and the people living up there who rely on those ecosystems for subsistence."

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that approved Shell’s plan for drilling in the Chukchi Sea, admitted in a February report that there was a “75% chance of one or more large spills” occurring in the area over the next 77 years.

PHOTO: A view of the Chukchi Sea as seen from Wainwright, Alaska, just after midnight, July 18, 2011. Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post/Getty Images
A view of the Chukchi Sea as seen from Wainwright, Alaska, just after midnight, July 18, 2011.

BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement, “We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea.”

“As we move forward, any off shore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said in a statement, “The approval of our Revised Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan.”

Obama’s announcement Monday came three years after Shell left the arctic because of a series of safety and operational problems, including a nearly disastrous grounding of the Kulluk oil rig, which had to be towed to safety in late-2012. The rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska because of the company’s “inadequate assessment and management of risks,” according to a report released by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Given Shell's troubled history in the Arctic, our government agencies need to look more critically at these proposals and take the time needed to make sure that all the necessary protections are in place,” Mike LeVine, pacific senior counsel for the environmental group Oceana, told ABC News.

In 2013, the Interior Department concluded that Shell had failed to meet a wide range of basic safety requirements and ordered the company to halt drilling until all safety issues were addressed.

PHOTO: Harbor seals rest on icebergs from the LeConte Glacier and are drifting in LeConte Bay, Tongass National Forest in Alaska, Aug. 23, 2013. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images
Harbor seals rest on icebergs from the LeConte Glacier and are drifting in LeConte Bay, Tongass National Forest in Alaska, Aug. 23, 2013.

Monday’s announcement clears the path for Shell to resume drilling in the Arctic, but the oil company must still obtain other permits from state and federal agencies, as well as comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The Arctic Ocean is home to endangered whales, seals and polar bears, according to the Alaska Wilderness League which lists oil drilling and climate change as the two largest threats to regional wildlife.

“Shell helped melt the Arctic and now they want to drill in the thawing waters; it beggars belief that the Obama administration is willing to abet what amounts to one of the greatest acts of corporate irresponsibility in the planet’s history,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

Comments