US Government Gives Conditional Approval to Shell for Exploratory Drilling in America’s Arctic

Plans to drill in Chukchi Sea, home to polar bears, beluga and bowhead whales

Beluga Whales Chukchi Sea

The US government has approved an application from Royal Dutch Shell to conduct exploratory drilling for oil in America’s Arctic ocean.

Shell still needs to receive other permits in order to go forward, but is planning to drill this summer in the Chukchi Sea, which is home to polar bears, walrus, beluga and bowhead whales, and diverse seabird populations.

WWF strongly opposed this decision and over the past several months has 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 1000 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, would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

Kulluk sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska,

Concerns over Arctic drilling intensified when the Kulluk oil rig ran aground in Alaska in 2013.

The US Government agency that made the decision to approve the drilling permit did so, even though they estimate there to be 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 of such a spill could be irreversible – for wildlife and people. In addition, in April it was reported that one of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs, due in Puget Sound in May failed a Coast Guard inspection of some of its pollution control equipment.

In January of 2013 the world was again reminded of the risks from offshore oil operations. At that time, Shell lost control of its drilling rig while towing it from Alaska to Seattle for maintenance and the rig grounded on a pristine island in the Gulf of Alaska.

The decision to issue the permits comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry taking over as the incoming Arctic Council chairman. During this two-year chairmanship the U.S. will 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.

With Arctic temperatures rising twice as fast than ever before, and sea ice and snow melting at record levels, it is clear we must act to cut carbon emissions and decrease dependency on fossil fuels. Where oil drilling still occurs, it must be done sustainably and with solid, proven plans for responding to spills. This decision to allow drilling in the Chukchi Sea falls short on all counts. Determinations of where to permit drilling need to be backed by the best science and most advanced stewardship practices, so that critical ecosystems like the Chukchi will remain intact for the people and wildlife who depend on them.

Bowhead whale just under the sea ice, Arctic