ANCHORAGE - While some federal agencies are expressing caution on Arctic development, the federal Minerals Management Service continues to forge ahead with petroleum exploration drilling off the shores of the remote northern Alaska coast.
Environmental groups say the location is environmentally fragile, hammered by global warming and woefully unprepared to handle a major spill.
It's likely a court ultimately will decide whether drilling will take place in the remote marine waters.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Monday that the MMS had conditionally approved an exploratory drilling plan for 2010 in the Chukchi Sea by a subsidiary of Shell Oil. He said reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil must include responsible exploration of conventional resources.
The Chukchi Sea starts east of Barrow, America's northernmost city. It follows Alaska's northwest coast to the Bering Strait. Alaska shares the Chukchi and its whale, seal, walrus and polar bear populations with the Russian Far East.
Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc., in 2008 paid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi. Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby said exploring in the Chukchi could lead to tens of thousands of jobs and extended life for the trans-Alaska pipeline.
That's music to the ears of Alaska elected officials. The pipeline has operated recently at less than one-third capacity. Alaskans pay no state income or sales tax and 90 percent of the state's general fund revenue is taken from the oil industry.
Gov. Sean Parnell praised Salazar's announcement and said Alaska's Outer Continental shelf contains an estimated 27 billion barrels of recoverable oil, more than twice what's been produced on the North Slope since 1977. The OCS has 130 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, a commodity he hopes could help fill a proposed multibillion dollar pipeline to a distribution center in Alberta.
Shell proposes three Chukchi exploration wells using a drill ship and support vessels. The nearest settlement is Wainwright, population 534, an Inupiat Eskimo village whose residents live off bowhead and beluga whale, seal, walrus, caribou, polar bear, birds and fish.
A day after Salazar's announcement, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, announced she would introduce a bill to study building a deep water port in the Arctic. That's just one piece of infrastructure missing along some of the wildest coastline of America's wildest state.
In an Associated Press interview in February, Rear Adm. Gene Brooks, then-commander of the Coast Guard district that oversees Alaska, called his agency's Arctic experience "episodic and superficial." Until a few years ago, the improbability of Arctic shipping meant no one even bothered compiling routine navigational data, Brooks said.
But with summer sea ice in recent years shrinking to nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average, the agency is sending forays north and planning for its challenges.
The Arctic coast lacks an integrated network of marine radio coverage, Brooks said. In summer 2008, the Coast Guard found its boats were too big to easily launch from the sand beaches of Barrow and the 120-mile range of its helicopters too small, requiring fueling hops.
Shell's drilling ship would be accompanied by an ice management vessel, an ice class anchor handling vessel, and an oil spill response vessels.
Environmental groups, however, doubt Shell's claims that it could effectively clean up an oil spill where gale force winds, ice-filled waters, and complete darkness are plausible. They also say MMS is allowing exploration when basic information is lacking, such as population assessments of polar bears and walrus.
"We don't even know enough to know what we don't know," said Michael Levine, an attorney for Oceana. "We need to understand what species are in the ocean from the bottom of the food chain to the top, how climate change is affecting the ocean system, how currents move and what risks are presented by industrial development in a changing ocean," he said.
Nicholas Pardi, spokesman for MMS, said the agency is confident in the environmental studies in place to approve Shell's plan. Shell's proposed spill also met the agency's standards.
Shell faces other hurdles, including an air discharge permit from the Environmental Protection Agency and a drilling permit from MMS, Pardi said.
The 5-year MMS drilling plan also is undergoing review in response to a U.S. Court of Appeals. Stan Senner of Ocean Conservancy said a federal precedent in the Arctic has already been set. The National Marine Fisheries Service, under the Commerce Department and not Salazar's Interior, closed U.S. Arctic waters to commercial fishing because of the unknowns of how fishing would change the region.
"The Minerals Management Service should follow this precautionary example," he said.