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Shell secures another authorization as it pursues Arctic drilling; drill permits outstanding

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Royal Dutch Shell has secured another federal authorization as it pursues plans to drill exploration wells in the Arctic waters off the Alaska coast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday issued a letter of authorization allowing for the possible harassment of polar bears and Pacific walrus incidental to Shell's drilling program work. Intentional harassment is not permitted.

The authorization includes measures that Shell must take to minimize the effect of its work on the animals, including a minimum spacing of 15 miles between all drill rigs or seismic survey vessels, something conservation groups had sought. Nonetheless, some of those groups still called on President Barack Obama's administration to stop Arctic drilling.

Chris Krenz, Arctic campaign manager and senior scientist for Oceana, said the government seems to be rushing to meet Shell's timeline rather than taking the time needed to do the appropriate analyses.

"The closer the Shell rigs encroach upon the Chukchi Sea, the further away the Obama administration retreats from its promise to leave a strong climate legacy," Friends of the Earth's Marissa Knodel said in a statement.

Shell still needs drill permits. If it gets those, it could begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea in mid-July.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said by email that the company is evaluating Fish and Wildlife's letter of authorization and continues to pursue the exploration plan conditionally approved by another federal agency earlier this year. "That includes drilling in the Chukchi Sea once open water permits," he wrote.

The letter of authorization came the same day that Shell's second Arctic drilling ship, the Noble Discoverer, left Everett, Washington, en route to Alaska. The 572-foot drill ship was escorted from the harbor in Everett by two tug boats and two Coast Guard vessels, KIRO-TV reported.

The U.S. Coast said it temporarily detained five protesters in kayaks who tried to stop the vessel as it left Everett early Tuesday morning. The activists were brought to shore and issued citations for violating the safety zone around the drill ship, Chief Petty Officer David Mosley said. All were released.

Shell's other drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, arrived in Alaska's Dutch Harbor on Saturday, Smith said in an email to The Associated Press. It will remain there until Shell has received the final permits it needs from the government to drill and the sea ice over the drilling area begins to clear.

Shell wants a 30-mile radius around the drill site to be free of ice before starting to drill, Smith said.

Shell experts are predicting the drill site over the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea will be clear the third week of July, and the company's drill fleet would move into the Bering Strait sometime after the first week of July to meet that target date, he said.


Associated Press reporter Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Anchorage, Alaska.

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