WASHINGTON - Royal Dutch Shell announced it will embark on a Arctic drilling campaign within a fortnight, with two exploratory wells planned at a cost of pounds 4.5 billion. The move has come under fire from environmentalists, who want the delicate environment to remain untouched. The US Department of The Interior granted approval for the drilling in May, with the condition that oil is to be extracted in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way as possible. A fleet of 30 vessels, including two huge drilling rigs the Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer would be heading for the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska. Notwithstanding opposition from environmentalists, Shell is to drill two new wells at sites in the Chukchi Sea in the northwest coast of Alaska. Up to four wells could be sunk by the end of 2016. Shell expects to find significant quantities of oil, but if none is found, it will consider withdrawing from the region entirely. The drilling sites are nine miles apart and will initially be dug to just 50m deep, using conventional drilling techniques. Exploration is expected to conclude by 2016, by which point Shell will decide whether to continue drilling. However, oil is unlikely to be produced in commercial quantities before 2030, even if all goes according to the plan. Last month, the Obama administration told Royal Dutch Shell that it must maintain a distance between two drilling rigs in order to protect the walrus and polar bear population. The US Fish and Wildlife Service issued Shell a permit which emphasized that under 2013 federal wildlife protections, companies must maintain a 15-mile (24-km) buffer between two rigs drilling simultaneously. The rule is aimed to protect animals sensitive to sounds and activities of drilling. Walruses have been known to plunge off rocks into the sea during drilling, putting some at risk. If its wells do not strike oil, Shell could pull out of the programme and walk away. By the end of the summer it will have spent pounds 4.5 billion on the programme and will have to spend another pounds 700 million in next year's search. Ann Pickard, Shell's executive vice president for Arctic and Alaska, said the oil and gas giant has learnt from the mistakes of 2012 when severe weather led to the rescue of 18 men aboard the stranded Kulluk oil rig after its other rig nearly ran aground. Speaking in Norway recently, Pickard said: 'Among these setbacks in Alaska, were delays with an oil containment system, issues with one drilling rig and the grounding of another. Although we have addressed all of these situations, they marred the achievements of our 2012 season in Alaska.' Experts believe that over 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie in the Arctic Ocean, but environmentalists warn that the environmental hazards of drilling in this ocean are too great. Shell maintains that oil can be extracted safely despite the environmental risks. Protesters in Washington early this week staged demonstrations over Shell's intention to drill for fossil fuel in the Arctic. They say a spill in one of the most environmentally sensitive regions in the world would be destructive to the ecosystem and extremely hard to clean up.
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