The Obama administration removed the final bureaucratic obstacle preventing Royal Dutch Shell from drilling for oil beneath the Arctic Ocean, clearing the way for the company to complete exploratory wells as soon as this summer.
The approval, granted by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Monday, comes after Shell spent nearly eight years and more than $7 billion overcoming regulatory, political, legal and logistical challenges – sometimes of the company's own making.
The most recent came last month, when damage to a Shell icebreaker prompted the administration to limit Shell to drilling only preliminary top holes to wells, without entering potential oil-bearing zones, until the vessel was repaired. The icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, was transporting a capping stack, a mandatory piece of equipment used to contain a well in the event of a spill.
Monday's decision came after Shell completed the repairs late last month in Portland, Ore., and the Fennica then reached the drilling site in the Chukchi Sea, off the western coast of Alaska.
Even the repairs to the Fennica proved complicated: Greenpeace activists temporarily blocked the vessel from leaving Portland by suspending themselves by rock-climbing ropes from a bridge over the Willamette River. Greenpeace activists had attempted to block other Shell rigs earlier in the year and boarded one, the Polar Pioneer, for several days in April.
Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said Monday that the company remained on its planned schedule for drilling this summer.
"Given how quickly the Fennica got back in the theater, there was no time lost in the overall drilling of the well," he said. "In other words, there was no pause."
Shell must cease its Arctic operations by the end of September, before sea ice further complicates conditions in the remote and hazardous area.
Smith said he could not say whether Shell would reach oil this year. "Safety and operations are going to determine how far we get down in the well," he said.
Shell executives have said actual oil production would not begin for at least 10 years after exploratory work is completed. It would take time and much more money to build platforms and pipelines and secure an array of permits.
"None of it happens without confirmation of a commercial discovery, and that's what we've been trying to do for almost eight years," Smith said.
Environmentalists have long fought the project, citing the risk of spills and threats to wildlife, including protected whales and walruses. They also say it conflicts with President Obama's plans to reduce emissions that cause climate change.
Shell could be drilling at the same time Obama visits Alaska, in late August, as part of a trip to promote those plans.