By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell's bid to drill in the Arctic this summer took another step forward on Friday when the U.S. Interior Department approved its oil spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea.
Shell's response plan would allow the company to rapidly contain a massive spill in the challenging Arctic environment, the department said.
"After an exhaustive review, we have confidence that Shell's plan includes the necessary equipment and personnel pre-staging, training, logistics and communications to act quickly and mount an effective response should a spill occur," said James Watson, head of the department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
The department said Shell's plan would include a fleet of specially designed ships surrounding the drilling site with equipment able to recover about 80,000 barrels of oil per day in the event of a blowout.
Shell welcomed the acceptance of the response plan. The company has been working to get its Arctic exploration program back on track after repeated regulatory delays.
"Approval of our Chukchi Sea Oil Spill Response Plan is another major milestone on the path to drilling in the Alaska offshore this summer," Pete Slaiby, Alaska exploration manager for Shell, said in a statement.
Shell hopes to drill up to six wells off the coast of Alaska over the next two summers. Before any drilling can begin, however, Shell will have to apply for well-specific permits.
Environmental groups have charged that drilling in the Arctic is too risky, arguing that a spill in the Arctic would be much more difficult to handle than the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that took months to get under control.
"This agency knows full well that a major spill in the Arctic would be an environmental disaster but they've decided yet again to put corporate interests above clear scientific evidence," said Dan Howells, of Greenpeace, in a statement.
The Interior Department contends that it has greatly strengthened standards since the BP spill and that Shell will have to meet rigorous standards if it is allowed to drill.
A department inspector would be on-site at all times during Shell's drilling operations in the Arctic, Watson said on a conference call.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)