Feds approve first oil exploration in Arctic federal waters since Shell

The drilling rig on Spy Island. Eni aims to begin exploration in December. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

The federal government has given an Italian company the go-ahead to explore for oil in Arctic waters this winter.

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It’s the first oil exploration in Arctic federal waters since Shell abandoned its campaign in 2015.

The company, Eni, aims to begin drilling in December. It will operate from an existing man-made gravel island called Spy Island. Spy Island is about three miles offshore, in state waters west of Prudhoe Bay.

The prospect is about four miles away from the island, so Eni plans to use extended-reach drilling. According to the company, it will be be the longest extended-reach well in Alaska.

Eni already produces about 20,000 barrels of oil per day from its facilities on state land. If the exploration in federal waters goes well, Eni thinks it could double production.

Eni secured its leases before the Obama administration’s decision last year to remove the Arctic Ocean from new oil and gas leasing for five years. The Trump administration is currently reconsidering that decision.

In a statement, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Alaska Region director Mark Fesmire said, “Exploration must be conducted safely and responsibly in relation to the Arctic environment and we will continue to engage Eni as they move forward with drilling its exploratory well.”

At least one environmental group is worried about the approval.

“Offshore drilling threatens coastal communities and wildlife and will only push us deeper into the climate crisis,” Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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