Trump Administration OK’s Its First Arctic Offshore Drilling Plan

The Italian oil company Eni plans to drill four exploratory wells off Alaska. The last attempt in the region was Shell’s 2015 failure.

Shell's drilling rig Kulluk ran aground in the Arctic in 2013. Credit: SSgt Aaron M. Johnson/U.S. Air Force
Shell's drilling rig Kulluk ran aground in the Arctic in 2012, and the company abandoned exploratory drilling in the region in 2015 after finding little oil or gas. Credit: Staff Sgt Aaron M. Johnson/U.S. Air Force

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Making good on its promise to jump-start Arctic offshore drilling, the Trump administration gave Italian oil company Eni a quick green light on Wednesday to drill exploratory wells off the coast of Alaska.

This is the first Arctic drilling approval under President Donald Trump. It also will be the first exploration project conducted in the U.S. Arctic since Shell’s failed attempt in the Chukchi Sea in 2015.

The approval comes as the administration attempts to overturn former President Barack Obama’s ban of new drilling in federal Arctic waters. Eni’s leases were exempt from Obama’s ban because the leases are not new.

Environmental groups are calling the approval a sign that Trump is doing the bidding of the oil industry. The public had 21 days to review and comment on the exploration plan and 10 days to comment on the environmental impacts, which Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said was insufficient given the potential risks.

“An oil spill here would do incredible damage, and it’d be impossible to clean up,” Monsell said. “The Trump administration clearly cares only about appeasing oil companies, no matter its legal obligations or the threats to polar bears or our planet.”

Eni plans to drill four exploratory wells in December 2017, just before the leases expire at the end of the year.

The wells will be drilled from Spy Island, an existing gravel island in state waters, located three miles off the coast of Alaska. The wells would be the longest extended-reach wells in Alaska—stretching six miles horizontally into an area of shallow federal waters about six feet deep.

“We know there are vast oil and gas resources under the Beaufort Sea, and we look forward to working with Eni in their efforts to tap into this energy potential,” said the Management’s acting director, Walter Cruickshank, in a statement.

Monsell noted that Eni had not pursued exploratory drilling there until its leases were about to expire.

“Approving this Arctic drilling plan at the 11th hour makes a dangerous project even riskier,” she said.

In June, the Center and 12 other environmental organizations, including Earthjustice, Greenpeace, WWF and the Sierra Club, sent comments to BOEM about Eni’s proposed plan. In their comments, the groups said that Eni’s plan failed to adequately assess the extent of environmental harm the project could pose, the likelihood of an oil spill, or how Eni would respond to a large oil spill.

“Eni simply has failed to submit a complete, adequate Exploration Plan and environmental impact analysis, and, accordingly BOEM should rescind its completeness determination and reject Eni’s Exploration Plan,” the groups wrote.

BOEM disagreed, finding that the project would have “no significant impact.”

“Eni brought to us a solid, well-considered plan,” Cruickshank said.

Eni has said it will only drill in the winter when a potential oil spill would be easier to clean up and when whales are not migrating in the area.

Before Eni can drill, it will have to secure additional permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.