Beneath political firestorm on Arctic Ocean drilling, two projects make steady progress

Shell rig leaving Dutch Harbor in October 2015. Shell may have abandoned its efforts to drill in Arctic federal waters, but two other companies are still moving forward with plans to do so. (Photo by John Ryan/KUCB)

Efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean put Alaska at the center of an international debate. It’s a highly political topic, one both former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump weighed in on. And to this day, there hasn’t been any oil produced from Arctic waters solely owned by the federal government.

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So today, when it comes to drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean, you’d be forgiven for thinking not a lot is happening.

Yes, Shell’s multi-billion dollar effort to find oil in federal Arctic waters is a thing of the past. And yes, the Obama administration then took several steps to cut back on drilling in Arctic waters — actions the Trump administration is now working to undo.

But it turns out there is movement to get oil out of federally-owned parts of the Arctic Ocean. It’s happening slowly, steadily and without a lot of fanfare. Two companies’ efforts to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea are chugging forward and, at least for now, they’ve largely avoided the national spotlight.

First, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is reviewing the Texas-based Hilcorp’s Liberty project. The plan calls for producing oil from a man-made, gravel island east of Prudhoe Bay as early as 2020.

The other project, led by Italian company Eni, is at an earlier stage. Eni is working to get the final go-ahead to explore for oil west of Prudhoe this winter, using a gravel island in state waters. They aim to drill thousands of feet down and then tens of thousands of feet horizontally to the north — to see if there’s any oil worth recovering.

Farthest from the finish line, but still of note, is Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. The Native corporation acquired federal leases from Shell late…

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