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Science & Environment

Shell Gets Interior Department's Ok To Drill Off Alaska's Arctic Shore

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In some other news, new oil drilling could begin off the coast of Alaska this summer. The Department of the Interior has given conditional approval for Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic. The company's rigs are set to arrive in Alaska next month. But the company's track record is causing concern. Reporter Annie Ropeik of member station KUCB has more.

ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: Though the government has said yes in theory to Shell's Arctic exploration, the company still needs a series of permits to drill its six proposed oil wells in the Chukchi Sea. John Callahan is a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokesman.

JOHN CALLAHAN: There are also some very important authorizations that you need to get relating to the Marine Mammals Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act.

ROPEIK: The region where Shell wants to drill is full of species that are important to subsistence hunters and that impact commercial fisheries further south. Shell will have to keep its vessels and aircraft a certain distance away from protected animals like whales and walruses. The company also has to clear its final oil spill prevention plans with federal agencies. Company spokeswoman Megan Baldino is hoping regulators impose practical requirements.

MEGAN BALDINO: Permits that are usable, they're not overly descriptive and generally apply to the kind of work that we were attempting to perform.

ROPEIK: And she hopes they'll come through quickly. Shell can't send its ships into the Arctic until July 1, but they're set to arrive in staging areas further south in the next few weeks. Baldino says the government's latest approval is a milestone.

BALDINO: I think it signals the confidence regulators have in our plan.

ROPEIK: Environmental advocates, meanwhile, are disappointed the Obama administration has given Shell a green light to drill in an extreme environment where the usual techniques to clean up oil might not work. Susan Murray is a vice president for Oceana, a conservation group.

SUSAN MURRAY: Put those things together, and we could have a disaster if we had a spill in the Arctic.

ROPEIK: Murray thinks Shell hasn't proven it's ready to return to the region after its 2012 season was derailed by a series of mishaps, groundings, explosions and near-misses. Some of those happened in the Bering Sea fuel hub on Alaska. Standing on a rocky beach across from the town's only grocery store, port's director Peggy McLaughlin recalls the Noble Discoverer drill ship drifting towards shore.

PEGGY MCLAUGHLIN: Major panic was on, and by the time I got down here, they had already repositioned the vessel back out of anchor.

ROPEIK: But it still shook locals' confidence. McLaughlin has been talking about these concerns as part of Shell's planning process this year with 28 ships set to tie up in Unalaska in June and July.

MCLAUGHLIN: The objective, obviously, is to go and drill and explore and hopefully hit. And I hope it stays, and I hope it's environmentally without any major hiccups.

ROPEIK: For now, she'll wait for Shell to get its very last approvals and for the first of its ships to appear in port. For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik in Unalaska, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.