Alaska Delegation Relieved as Arctic Drilling Begins

When Royal Dutch Shell's drill bit bored into the Arctic seabed on Sunday, it was largely a symbolic event. Shell may not have a chance to strike oil off the coast of Alaska this summer, but at the very least the company broke ground, cut the ribbon, passed "Go," and collected an Interior Department permit for a multiyear venture costing more than $4 billion. For Alaska lawmakers, that was enough.

"I'm pleased that they are in the water, that they are exploring or that they're beginning the exploration," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said on Tuesday. "It was important for them to get started."

Seeing Shell begin preparatory work for operations in the Chukchi Sea, environmentalists know that Arctic Ocean drilling is inevitable — and they're angry. "The bottom line is that Shell is unprepared to drill in America's Arctic waters, but the Obama administration is giving them the go-ahead anyway," Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said on Friday.

The first tentative offshore drilling has come after many delays. When Shell faced a number of obstacles early in the summer, such as persistent sea ice and problems complying with the administration's regulations, Alaska lawmakers scaled down their expectations.

"I think we recognize that there were a series of factors that didn't allow them to begin earlier," Murkowski said on Tuesday, citing the continuing obstacle of the company's oil-spill containment barge, which has yet to be certified by the Coast Guard.

With that in mind, the Interior Department's move late last month, granting Shell a preliminary permit to proceed with wells up to 1,400 to 1,500 feet below the sea floor until the barge is certified and makes it to the site in the Chukchi Sea, was about as much as Arctic-drilling proponents could expect. The drilling is not supposed to enter "hydrocarbon zones," meaning that Shell won't be making any discoveries, but the company has been allowed to do some preparatory work, which began on Sunday.

"Clearly, the go-ahead that they received from the [Interior] secretary that they could proceed with the mud floor prior to the containment barge being certified was important," Murkowski said, adding that the vessel could be certified and set sail within the week. Still, once certified, it would take about 14 to 18 days to reach the drilling site, and Shell would need final permits from Interior for more than just preparatory work.

"I am hopeful that the permit issues will be worked out as soon as the barge work is complete," Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said on Monday. "Both sides are working very hard, and getting to this point is already a success.... I have every confidence that with Shell's progress over this summer and fall — progress we haven't seen in over a decade — that additional investment will come."

GOP Rep. Don Young, Alaska's only House member, also was ecstatic that Shell made it this far. "Shell's commitment to Alaska is clear," he said. "They have put billions of dollars and countless hours of manpower into this project and obtaining the necessary permits."