Royal Dutch Shell Plc has received U.S. permission to disturb marine mammals as part of its plan to resume oil exploration off Alaska’s Arctic coast as it neared final sign-off from regulators to drill this summer.
The last step in the process, approval of a specific drilling plan from the Interior Department, could come soon, clearing the way for Shell to resume operations that were halted after offshore mishaps in 2012. The Arctic exploration season begins on July 15.
“There is nothing to indicate any show stoppers” in Shell’s application, said Brian Salerno, the director of the Interior Department’s offshore safety bureau. The back-and-forth between the company and regulators “are proceeding,” he told reporters Tuesday after testifying to Congress about Arctic issues.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an “incidental harassment authorization,” which allows noise from air guns, ice-breaking, drilling and anchor handling that may disturb whales or seals. The permit doesn’t allow Shell to injure or kill any marine life.
“Shell has executed responsible offshore programs in Alaska for several years with no known negative impacts to the environment, marine mammals or local communities,” said Curtis Smith, a company spokesman. “We look forward to continued success on that front in 2015.”
Shell has won general approval from the department for oil exploration in the coming months. The Hague-based company still must gain backing for a specific drilling plan from Interior’s offshore regulator, and work around ice floes and other vagaries of being 70 miles offshore Alaska in the Chukchi Sea.
Shell wants to resume work halted after its main drilling rig ran aground and was lost. It also was fined for air-pollution violations.
The Arctic seas contain an estimated 24 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Shell, which discovered oil in the same part of the ocean in 1986, is the first major explorer to return since the offshore Arctic drilling boom fizzled almost 30 years ago amid slumping crude prices.
Environmental groups, citing the difficulties in operating in extreme conditions, say producing oil in the Arctic is a mistake. In addition, they say plans for mammal disturbance show that the risks are too great to threatened species and native communities that rely on them.
For more, read this QuickTake: Arctic Opportunity
“Many of America’s most beloved marine creatures thrive here, including whales, walrus, seals and countless birds,” Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.