The Trump administration has given Italian oil company Eni the go-ahead to drill four exploratory wells off the coast of Alaska, the first since Shell’s doomed search for oil in the Chukchi Sea in 2015.
“An oil spill here would do incredible damage, and it’d be impossible to clean up,” said attorney Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Trump administration clearly cares only about appeasing oil companies, no matter its legal obligations or the threats to polar bears or our planet.”
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The four wells will be drilled in December, just before Eni’s lease expires, a plan that “makes a dangerous project even riskier,” Monsell added. CleanTechnica notes that Eni has a special interest in taking action on the lease, which dates back to 2005: “If Eni sinks a couple of holes now, the lease gets extended.”
The White House is still working to overturn an Obama-era ban on new drilling in federal Arctic waters, but “Eni’s leases were exempt from Obama’s ban because the leases are not new,” InsideClimate News explains.
The wells will be drilled from Spy Island, an existing gravel island in state waters about three miles off the coast. They will stretch “six miles horizontally into an area of shallow federal waters about six feet deep,” ICN notes, making them the longest extended-reach wells in Alaska.
CleanTechnica points to the extraordinary hazards associated with Arctic oil drilling, noting that “you’re thousands of miles away from all the equipment you need—it’ll take months just to get it there. Ditto for experienced clean-up crews. And conditions are some of the worst in the world—cold, stormy, choppy seas don’t make it easy to perform delicate underwater capping operations. Eni admits that an oil spill could unleash 21 million gallons of crude.”
But correspondent Jeremy Bloom notes one advantage that a “tiny U.S. subsidiary of an Italian company” holds over the mammoth Shell organization and its most recent Arctic adventure. “According to the company website, Eni has been operating in Russia since 2007, and currently gets 30% of its gas from the cooperative agreements with Russian oil behemoth Rosneft, initially signed in 2012,” Bloom writes. “Naturally,” CleanTechnica snarks in its headline, “if Trump approves new Arctic drilling, it’s got to be a Russian-connected oil company.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the project would have “no significant impact,” with Acting Director Walter Cruickshank saying he welcomed the effort. “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,” he said in a statement.
Responding on short notice after BOEM allowed only three weeks for public comment, the Center for Biological Diversity and 12 other environmental organizations charged that Eni had inadequately assessed the project’s potential for environmental harm, the likelihood of an oil spill, or how the company would respond to a large spill, InsideClimate reports.
“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,” they warned.
The good news, CleanTechnica notes, is that Eni is not proposing as difficult an exploratory effort as Shell’s previous deepwater drilling operation. “And at least under the current terms, this is just exploration—no oil will be pumped. So this whole exercise may be just to make their balance sheets look good and get a foot in the door.”