The federal government has given Shell the final permit it needs to drill for oil in the Arctic. While the oil and gas giant technically broke ground on two exploratory wells last month, they were limited to drilling only the top sections of the seabed. Now, however, with the arrival of a key piece of equipment, the company can proceed with drilling into oil-bearing rock 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) below the ocean floor.
This is the first time in more than two decades that Shell has been allowed to drill wells under the Chukchi Sea since their first exploratory well in 1991. Despite the U.S. government reassuring people that they will be monitoring Shell's work “around the clock” to make sure that the “utmost” safety is observed, criticism has been laid on thick for the Obama administration. This is especially since the news quickly follows the announcement to cut carbon emissions by 32% by 2030.
“Today’s decision makes it final: President Obama is willing to allow the pristine Chukchi Sea to become an energy sacrifice zone and worsen climate disruption,” said Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel. “When President Obama announced his Clean Power Plan last week, he committed the U.S. to leading the world in addressing climate change, but giving Shell the green light to exploit the Arctic Ocean for profit completely contradicts that commitment.”
It’s expected that Shell will complete the well by the end of the summer, before the season ends on September 28. Shell are obviously keeping their cards close to their chest and refusing to say how deep the drill has so far reached, or when it will likely hit petroleum-bearing rock. “It's information that we consider proprietary and therefore not something we would release,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
The delay in the final permit was due to the need to wait for a specific piece of kit. Called a “capping stack,” the roughly 9-meter (30-foot) device is designed to stop possible well blowouts like that seen in the Gulf of Mexico. It can be lowered down within 24 hours if such an accident occurs, and hopefully prevent any further spill, though environmental groups say that oil companies have so far failed to demonstrate that they can clean up an oil spill in icy waters.
This marks an important chapter for Shell, who have so far invested over $7 billion in drilling the Arctic, despite not having had a single dollar returned. It comes at a time when oil prices are at a historical low, and when most other oil companies are steering well clear of such a costly investment.