On Tuesday 31 March 2015, a press release from the US Department of the Interior informed that the 2008 lease sale in the Chuckhi Sea (Alaska) was upheld, a first step for allowing the re-opening of 30 million acres of US continental shelf for oil exploration by Royal Dutch Shell.
Shell's presence in the Chukchi Sea, off the Alaskan costs, started back in 2008, when the company paid $ 2,1 billion to buy the license blocks sold by the US government to allow oil exploration in the area. Permission for „tentative drilling" was accorded in 2012, meaning that Shell could begin preparatory works but not actual drilling the oil fields off Alaska coast. However, as reported by the US website "rt.com", „after two serious drilling rig accidents slowed the company's operations in the area, Shell announced in February 2013 that it would temporarily abandon efforts in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. In one of those incidents, Shell decided to drag its top rig, the Kulluk, around 1,700 miles through frigid Arctic waters despite warnings from the tow ship's captain, all in a rush to avoid an upcoming tax liability about to go into effect after 2012.The Kulluk, reportedly carrying 150,000 gallons of fuel, eventually broke free from the towing ship, floating off into an ecologically-sensitive area. The rig and its crew had to be rescued by the US Coast Guard, which later released a report on the incident that slammed Shell for "inadequate assessment and management of risks."
Consequently, in January 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 2008 opening for oil exploration was illegal, as the environmental risks of drilling had not been correctly assessed.
After the approval of new rules issued by the Obama Administration in February 2014, a first step in support of oil and gas production off of the Alaskan coasts, and additional analysis using the best available data to estimate the highest amount of production that could reasonably result from Lease Sale 193 and incorporated that information into a Supplemental EIS (SEIS) (published in February 2015), these suspensions have been eventually lifted.
Therefore Shell has already started to move back the equipment to the area, although the drilling activities will have to wait for the final review by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, expected in not less than 30 days.
"The Arctic is an important component of the Administration's national energy strategy, and we remain committed to taking a thoughtful and balanced approach to oil and gas leasing and exploration offshore Alaska," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. "This unique, sensitive and often challenging environment requires effective oversight to ensure all activities are conducted safely and responsibly."
Understandably, the decision taken by the Obama administration was a sensitive one. In fact, in addition to the accidents already occurred during the past 7 years, opponents to the project have highlighted the remoteness of the area, the lack of infrastructure located nearby, and that the decision clearly contrast Obama's new effort to fight climate change.
Greenpeace promptly reacted to the US Department of Interior communication to re-open the Chuckhi Sea for exploration condemning firmly the decision. Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard said for the Greenpeace media release (published on March 31st): "Shell may now have approval from the Obama administration to drill in the Arctic, but it does not have approval from the people. Millions around the world are saying 'no' to Arctic drilling and other extraction projects that we have to freeze to avoid catastrophic climate change. On the same day President Obama pledges to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third, he opens the back door for one of the most irresponsible oil companies to drill in the Arctic. While this decision is deeply disappointing, it will also energize people around the world to oppose Shell at every turn. Shell's Arctic oil rigs are now infamous, and all eyes will be looking north this summer."