Shell Begins Arctic Drilling

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Sept. 9 2012 4:07 PM

Shell Begins First Drilling in the Arctic Since 1990s

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Environmentalists have long opposed Arctic drilling. Here, Greenpeace activists dressed in polar bear costumes and others holding banners stage a protest on May 10 on the roof of a Shell petrol station in Prague

Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/GettyImages

After waiting six years and spending $4.5 billion, Shell took its first step in drilling in the Chukchi Sea, 70 miles off the coast of northwest Alaska in what could mark the beginning of a new wave of exploration in U.S. offshore Arctic waters. Shell announced that it begun drilling the “top hole” of an exploratory well early Sunday morning, reports the Los Angeles Times. The company will drill around 1,300 feet deep but will not be able to tap the hydrocarbon deposits until an oil spill containment barge is on site. That means the well could be completed next year.

Environmental groups have long opposed drilling in the Arctic, insisting that oil companies have not shown they have the ability to clean up a spill in ice-filled waters. They insist that a large spill could be catastrophic to the region and threaten the lives of many marine mammals, including polar bears, notes the Associated Press.

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The U.S. government is keeping close tabs on the operation, and regulators with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement were aboard the drillship when it began operations Sunday, reports Dow Jones. It marks the first exploratory drilling in the Arctic since the early 1990s, and marks what could be the beginning of a new phase in Alaska oil production, which has been in decline due to aging oil fields, notes the Los Angeles Times.

There are an estimated 90 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the Arctic waters, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.