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Approval of Shell Drilling Permit Brings Renewed Risk to the Arctic

whale calf Chukchi Sea

The US government has given approval to Royal Dutch Shell to conduct exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

WWF has long opposed drilling in this region, which is crucial for wildlife, fisheries and local people. The approval does prohibit Shell from drilling into the oil-bearing layer of the ocean floor until all safety equipment is in place. That equipment was on board a support vessel that ran aground last year en route to the Arctic. The icebreaker, MV Fennica, is returning to Oregon for repairs. It is unclear when it will arrive in Alaska.

No proven technology

Shell’s previous attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea ended badly from damaged vessels to malfunctioning safety equipment to onboard fire. Most notably, Shell lost control of its drilling rig in January 2013 while towing it from Alaska to Seattle for maintenance. The rig grounded on a pristine island in the Gulf of Alaska. The string of errors by Shell underlines serious concerns about the safety of Arctic drilling.

“With no proven technology to thoroughly contain and clean up a spill in the Arctic, wildlife and local communities that call the region home are jeopardized by the ever-expanding search for petroleum in our most pristine and productive waters,” said Margaret Williams, director of the WWF-US Arctic program “While the US Government has placed an important and necessary restriction on Shell’s activities, the exploration process still brings with it unacceptable noise, traffic and pollution to the home of polar bears, walrus, whales, and seabirds.”

A 75% chance of spills

WWF strongly opposed the decision to allow drilling, and recently shared voices of concern with the government from more than 100,000 supporters. The drilling site is 70 miles from the shore of Alaska and 1,000 miles away from the nearest US Coast Guard station. In the event of an accident, detecting and containing spilled oil in broken ice, summer fog, and rough sea conditions is likely not possible.

The US Government approved the permit despite its own assessment that there is a 75-percent chance of one or more spills of more than 1,000 barrels of oil into this pristine region during the lifetime of the lease, from exploration to development. The impacts from a major spill could be devastating for wildlife and people.

Counter to US climate goals

In a region where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average, and sea ice and snow is melting at record levels, it is critical the US take decisive action to cut carbon pollution to reduce the impacts of climate change.

The decision to approve the permits comes as the US takes over as Arctic Council chair. Priorities for its two-year chairmanship include a focus on ocean stewardship, improving economic and living conditions for Arctic residents, and climate change. Given these US priorities, WWF sees the decision to allow Shell to move forward as a contradiction to the nation’s overarching goals in the Arctic.