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In the next few weeks, the federal government could give the final go-ahead for Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. The company is hoping to tap into vast new deposits of oil. To get to this point, NPR's Richard Harris reports, Shell has spent $4 billion since 2007 and jumped many hurdles.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Shell is planning to steam an armada of vessels into the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Seas north of Alaska sometime this summer and some of those vessels are already in Alaska waters, including the Nanuq, specially built for Shell to clean up oil spills in the Arctic.
Shell scientist Michael Macrander notes that there's no black smoke and none of that typical sulfury smell coming out of the ship's stacks.
MICHAEL MACRANDER: They retrofitted this vessel with clean air technology just to keep those emissions down. All of our vessels have been worked on to keep our emissions down.
HARRIS: That's not simply because Shell is big-hearted. The company's plans to drill in the Arctic last year were thwarted when environmental groups successfully petitioned the EPA to reject the company's original air quality permits. So the fleet heading north is a lot cleaner than it would have been in 2011.
Air is one thing. Inupiats, who live along the north coast of Alaska, have been worried that oil exploration could scare away the whales they hunt. Macrander says the company has taken steps to address those concerns.
MACRANDER: You know, that goes all the way to agreements with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission to shut down during critical periods when they are hunting.
HARRIS: In fact, Macrander says Shell will pull its drilling rig out of the Beaufort Sea for weeks during the summer hunt. That has tempered Inupiat opposition to the drilling, but not so for environmental groups. Everyone from Greenpeace to the Sierra Club to the Alaska Wilderness League continues to fight a pitched battle to block Shell.
Lois Epstein at the Wilderness Society in Anchorage ticks off some of the concerns.
LOIS EPSTEIN: We're not ready scientifically. We're not ready in terms of having effective cleanup and we're not ready in terms of having the regulatory oversight mechanism that we should have had.
HARRIS: The government has decided to put inspectors on the Arctic drilling rigs full time, but that doesn't solve the whole problem, in Epstein's view. Another issue, the government has been leasing tracts to oil companies without first stopping to figure out what parts of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas should be set aside as wildlife preserves. Scientists are still trying to identify the most critical habitat for marine mammals.
EPSTEIN: When we do identify areas that are highly productive in terms of calving and important in terms of raising young, we should set aside those areas to ensure that whales and other marine mammals have that habitat.
HARRIS: Epstein, for one, argues that development is simply happening too fast in an area where so much is at stake for the environment and for the native peoples.
EPSTEIN: Yes. There's enormous pressure to go after the Arctic, but we're not so desperate right now that we have to do that.
HARRIS: Environmental groups reached sympathetic ears in the lower 48 states, but not so much in Alaska. Scott Goldsmith, an economics professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, says most Alaskans are excited that Shell is about to start drilling offshore.
SCOTT GOLDSMITH: It could be one of the next big events that will keep the petroleum economy going for another generation or more.
HARRIS: And people care more about the petroleum economy than they do about the pristine Arctic Ocean?
GOLDSMITH: Most Alaskans do. Yes. I think that's safe to say.
HARRIS: The oil flowing from Alaska has been on the wane. Drilling offshore could turn that around dramatically. There are potentially 25 billion barrels of oil up there, arguably worth several trillion dollars. So it's no mystery why Shell has already invested $4 billion on this prospecting and doubtless spend a lot more before the oil could start to flow.
Pete Slaiby is Shell's vice president for Alaska.
PETE SLAIBY: The costs are big, but the volumes are substantial. The only area in the U.S. with potentially more resource would be those remaining in deep water Gulf of Mexico.
HARRIS: Slaiby says, if they do find rich pockets of oil, it will take at least a decade to drill production wells and to string pipeline to carry the oil to shore and on to market.
And Shell isn't the only company interested. ConocoPhillips and Statoil hope to start drilling exploratory wells next year. So, will the Arctic Ocean eventually bristle with thousands of oil rigs like the Gulf of Mexico? Slaiby doubts it. Modern technology requires far fewer oil production platforms and the harsh conditions will keep out everyone but the big guys.
SLAIBY: So it will never, in my view, have that kind of industrial look that the Gulf of Mexico might have.
HARRIS: And, with all the attention now on offshore oil drilling in Alaska, some people are surprised to learn that this isn't the first time oil exploration wells have been sunk in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.
SLAIBY: We drilled wells two decades ago. Drilled them all successfully and without any kind of major incident and, you know, the greatest compliment I hear about that is one I hope to get at the end of 2012 - is that we didn't know you guys were here.
HARRIS: Actually, there's one way that Shell wants to make its presence felt and that is in creating jobs and the political support that comes with them. Slaiby says these operations could ultimately generate 55,000 jobs, a huge number for sparsely populated Alaska. And they're already starting to hire.
Onboard the ship named Nanuq near Valdez, Robert Long is one of the nearly 200 Alaskans hired for spill cleanup duty.
ROBERT LONG: The pay is good. The work's good here.
HARRIS: How does your family feel about, or - and how do you feel about the fact that you're helping Shell drill in the Arctic?
LONG: Oh, great. The people I know and deal with in my life - you know, they're just happy that I'm working.
HARRIS: Are they concerned about an oil spill?
LONG: I'm sure anybody is. You know, if there is, we'll be right there cleaning it up.
HARRIS: Like many Alaskans, he'll take that risk in exchange for the reward. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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