Arctic Oil Drilling Given Final Approval by Obama Administration

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Image of Shell Arctic Oil Drilling Rig.
Source: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, “Alaska Exploration,” (accessed Aug. 20, 2015)

[Editor’s Note: On Sep. 28, 2015, Shell announced that it is abandoning oil exploration in the Arctic for the foreseeable future after drilling one exploratory well in the Chukchi Sea. According to Shell, the oil and gas found in the exploratory well were “not sufficient to warrant further exploration.”]

On Aug. 17, 2015 Shell received the final approval from the US Department of Interior to begin conducting exploratory oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea off the Northwest Alaskan coast. Shell had obtained and paid for the leases to drill during the previous administration of President George W. Bush.

In 2012, Shell attempted exploratory oil drilling activities in the Arctic, but was forced to discontinue its drilling program due to a series of accidents, including the loss of control and grounding of one of its oil drilling rigs.

The annual window of opportunity to drill in Arctic waters is short due to weather conditions, and normally takes place between July and October. Shell’s Arctic drilling operations this year are already behind schedule after a ship carrying emergency well-plugging equipment was damaged by an underwater shoal while in the Arctic. The ship had to return to harbor in Portland for repairs and was prevented from leaving Portland harbor for nearly two days in late July by Greenpeace activists who blocked the ships passage by repelling off the St. Johns Bridge.

Environmental activists were angered by the Obama administration’s approval of drilling in the Arctic. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the drilling will “despoil our last pristine ocean and spew massive amounts of carbon pollution into our atmosphere… This wrong-headed decision also will expose the Arctic to the likelihood of catastrophic spills in ice-choked waters more than 1,000 miles from a Coast Guard base and other critical clean-up infrastructure.” The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management forecast “a 75% chance of one or more large spills occurring” over a 77-year oil extraction scenario.

According to President Obama, Shell provided safety “assurances that we have not seen before, taking account of the extraordinary challenges if, in fact, there was a leak that far north and in that kind of an environment, which would be much more difficult to deal with than in the Gulf. Based on those very high standards… the experts at this point have concluded that they have met those standards… when it can be done safely and appropriately, U.S. production of oil and natural gas is important.”

Shell has stated that “developing Arctic resources could be essential to securing energy supplies for the future.” According to the US government, the Arctic contains 20% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Shell has stated that it will “take extra precautions to work safely in Arctic conditions, including a disciplined use of prevention barriers, risk management application of proven technology to prevent oil spills, and measures to minimize harm to marine resources.” In the case of a spill, Shell will have “dedicated oil spill response vessels and equipment available at an hour’s notice, 24 hours a day.”

The 2016 Presidential Candidates have already begun to weigh in on the debate. In an Aug. 18 tweet, Hillary Clinton stated that “the Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.” In response, Jeb Bush tweeted “Wrong. Being more-anti energy than Obama is extreme. We should embrace energy revolution to lower prices and create US Jobs.”


Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, “BSEE Approves Updated Permit for Exploration Activities in Arctic Waters under Rigorous Safety Requirements,”, Aug. 17, 2015

Jeb Bush, Twitter post,, Aug. 18, 2015

Hillary Clinton, Twitter post,, Aug. 18, 2015

Coral Davenport, “US Will Allow Drilling for Oil in Arctic Ocean,”, May 11, 2005

Jennifer A. Dlouhy, “Obama Administration Gives Thumbs up to Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plans,”, May 11, 2015

Timothy Gardner, “US Gives Shell Final Nod to Drill for Oil in Arctic,”, Aug. 17, 2015

Franz Matzner, “NRDC: Interior’s Approval of Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plan Threatens Climate, Ocean,”, May 11, 2015

Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama in Press Conference after GCC Summit,”, May 14, 2015

Ryan Schletter, “As It Happened: Activists Stop Shell Vessel as It Attempts to Leave Portland Harbor,”, July 29, 2015

Shell Global, “Shell in the Arctic,” (accessed Aug. 20, 2015)

US Department of Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, “Alaska Outer Continental Shelf: Final Second Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,”, Feb. 2015