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Shell begins preliminary drilling in Beaufort Sea

Courtesy Senator Begich's office

Royal Dutch Shell began preliminary drilling in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northeastern shores Wednesday afternoon, the first time there has been any oil drilling in the area in decades.

Shell had hoped to get started sooner on its Beaufort drilling program, but has been waiting for Alaska Native whalers to wrap up their hunts. Villages like Kaktovik, which is closest to the area Shell is drilling, were hunting bowhead whales over the past several weeks. Shell has agreed to hold off on drilling during the fall whaling season.

Meantime, Shell has been drilling another Arctic oil prospect in the Chukchi Sea for several weeks now. "The occasion is historic in that it’s the first time two rigs have been drilling simultaneously offshore Alaska in over two decades," said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith in a statement Wednesday.

Both drilling operations, however, are preliminary, as the Netherlands-based has permission from federal regulators to drill in the seabed to only 1,400 feet, a few thousand feet short of oil and gas deposits.

For more about Shell's drilling operations and how they may impact Alaska, read Alaska Dispatch's special series -- Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR -- that ran last week.