An Italian company has been conditionally approved to explore for oil.

Oil infrastructure on Alaska’s North Slope CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Thiessen

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on Wednesday granted conditional approval for Italian oil company Eni to explore for oil in Alaska’s North Slope region.

Eni’s proposal, which is still subject to local and additional federal approvals, is to drill three oil wells roughly three miles off the Alaskan coast. The drilling will be conducted from a man-made island, which is reached via an ice road. The permit allows for drilling only from December to April. If Eni discovers recoverable oil at this location, the company will need to come back to BOEM for drilling permits.

BOEM issued the approval after an environmental assessment of the plan found “no significant impact.” That finding means Eni will not need to conduct a full environmental impact statement.

“Eni brought to us a solid, well-considered plan,” BOEM’s acting director, Walter Cruickshank, said in a statement. “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.”

The drilling location is in the Nikaitchuq area of the North Slope, which lies between the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. CREDIT: Energy Information Administration (left); BOEM (right)

This region of the North Slope is sandwiched between the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. While it was not included in the Obama administration’s wide-sweeping restriction on oil drilling in the Arctic, which was issued in 2016 and covered 98 percent of U.S.-controlled Arctic waters, the region has nonetheless seen declining oil production since the late 1980s.

Local groups have been divided on the issue of oil drilling in the Arctic.

On the one hand, it represents an enormous risk to local ecosystems. An oil spill off the coast of Alaska would be disastrous — and difficult to clean up. Emergency response is more challenging in cold, remote locations.

But oil is also a major part of Alaska’s economy, which has taken a hit with low oil prices. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has repeatedly backed efforts to increase drilling in the state, which has an unconventional agreement with the federal government, receiving a quarter of revenue payments into a politically popular state fund.

In April, President Donald Trump touted Alaska’s oil reserves while announcing a rethink of the country’s offshore drilling policies. Trump apparently intends to reverse the previous administration’s ban on drilling in much of the Arctic, although legal experts question whether that will be possible.

In any case, the current administration has made no secret of its intention to increase U.S. oil, gas, and even coal production, rolling back a slew of regulations and reopening the country’s offshore drilling planning process, which is conducted by BOEM. BOEM’s current five-year plan was set to expire in 2022, but the agency has already begun the process of redoing it — potentially opening up not only new areas of the Arctic, but also Atlantic and Pacific waters.

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