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Our view: Arctic challenge

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the right call to allow Shell to drill a well in the Chukchi Sea. Shell can drill, but not deep enough for oil, because its containment barge Arctic Challenger isn't ready for duty yet.

With that decision, Salazar is letting Shell go as far as it makes sense to let the oil company go until its recovery vessel is ready.

The day after Salazar's decision, the Environmental Protection Agency gave a one-year, provisional air permit that will allow Shell to operate its ships this season in the Arctic while the agency reviews its request for an easing of air pollution standards.

Salazar's decision reflects Interior's Arctic policy. That policy says that we want to explore and develop in the Arctic, including offshore, but that we want to do it the right way and safely. If we err, it should be on the side of caution. Salazar and other Interior officials have promised that Shell's work will be the most closely watched and monitored in the history of offshore oil exploration.

Good.

The Coast Guard has been, in Salazar's words, "all over" the retrofitting work on the Arctic Challenger in Bellingham, Wash. With Salazar's backing, the Coast Guard has been adamant that the containment barge, key to Shell's response in any oil spill, won't be cleared until it's fitted and ready to the Coast Guard's satisfaction.

That's also encouraging.

It's almost certain that Shell will finally have a drilling season in the Arctic this year. It won't be as long as the company had hoped but Shell officials themselves have said that's their own responsibility, not the work of the regulators. Further, its season may have restrictions that Shell doesn't like. The company already has asked for a Chukchi time extension if ice allows; Interior hasn't decided yet.

Shell's setbacks as it prepares for Arctic drilling haven't inspired confidence. But the real proof of Shell's program -- and the strength and savvy of government oversight -- begin with drilling operations that should get under way shortly.

Shell, the feds, the state, a rich ecosystem and most of all the people who live hard by the Arctic seas have lives and fortunes at stake. All ahead slow -- and keep a watch that misses nothing and never blinks.

BOTTOM LINE: Feds' decisions on Shell are fair and sound.