Shell's decision to end its program to drill for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska is being cheered by one international organization.
Shell's drilling in the Chukchi Sea threatened Russia's Wrangel Island Reserve, an ecologically rich site that is the only designated World Heritage site in the Arctic, said the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO.
"This Arctic jewel, and the wealth of wildlife it supports, were threatened by Shell's Chukchi Sea operations," UNESCO said in a statement released Wednesday.
The reserve holds 2,937-square-mile Wrangel Island, 4.25-square-mile Herald Island and the waters around them. The islands and their waters are home to large numbers of walruses and polar bears, which give birth to their young and nurse them in the area, along with numerous species of migratory birds that nest there and other animals.
Wrangel Island was not glaciated during the last ice age, so its rich vegetation is considered to be similar to that which existed in the Pleistocene epoch. Wrangel Island is also believed to have been the last refuge of the world's woolly mammoths, which survived in isolation thousands of years after the species went extinct elsewhere. The youngest woolly mammoth fossil found on Wrangel Island is about 3,700 years old, and it is unknown when the last of the animals died out there.
About 360 miles separate Shell's soon-to-be-abandoned Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea from Wrangel Island.
Still, UNESCO said in its statement, Shell's activities posed a risk. An oil spill from the targeted Shell site could send a plume into the Wrangel Island Reserve buffer zone, UNESCO said, citing environmental analysis by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The UN's World Heritage Committee, which helps oversee designated sites, earlier this year took formal action to express concerns about Shell's exploration. The committee has also expressed concerns about Rosneft's plans to search for oil in the region and its seismic work in the East Siberian Sea, as well as the Russian Navy's construction of a base on the island.