The US government has just granted Royal Dutch Shell permission to drill into oil-bearing rock some 8,000 feet below the Arctic’s sea floor, leading the way for the first such drilling in the area in 24 years. Shell currently has two oil platforms in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea—the Polar Pioneer and the nearby Noble Discoverer—but had been barred from deepwater drilling until a key safety vessel was in place.


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According to the AP, the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced on August 17 that it had provided Shell with the final go ahead to commence deepwater drilling. The company, which bid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi Sea in 2008, had previously been denied permission to commence drilling until a piece of safety equipment known as a “capping stack” was in place. The government requires that that equipment be in place and ready for deployment within 24 hours of an oil well blowout, in an effort to prevent a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster than struck the Gulf Coast in April 2010.

Related: Shell tells U.S. it’s ready to begin drilling 8,000 feet below Arctic seabed

The capping stack is aboard a vessel named the Fennica, which had incurred damage en route to Alaska, and was subsequently repaired in Portland. Protestors from Greenpeace successfully prevented the vessel from departing for Alaska for several days, with activists blocking the Fennica with kayaks and by hanging from a bridge. But the coastguard cleared the area, and the Fennica reached the Chukchi Sea on August 11, at which point Shell applied for amendments to their permits that would allow them to commence drilling.

There is an estimated 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil held within the rock beneath the Arctic, and there is great concern that tapping this resource will delay the transition to renewable energy as the primary source of domestic power. In addition, the industrial activity alone—assuming that there are no accidents—threatens to cause harm to polar bears, Pacific walrus, ice seals and whales, who are already suffering from the effects of climate change and shrinking sea ice.

Lead photo © Mark Meyer/Greenpeace, second photo via Flickr