Italian oil company gets federal OK to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska

Federal regulators on Tuesday gave an Italian oil company the green light to conduct exploration drilling in federal territory of the Arctic Ocean off Alaska within weeks, the first approval of its kind in two years in a move that was quickly blasted by a prominent conservation group.

Eni U.S. Operating plans to set a record drilling distance in Alaska of more than 6 miles in an area northwest of Prudhoe Bay, reaching the exploration site beneath federal waters from a man-made island located in shallow state waters near the North Slope shore.

"It will be the longest extended-reach well in the state," said Whitney Grande, vice president of safety, environment and quality for the company.

ConocoPhillips last year announced it had set a long-distance drilling record in Alaska with a 5-mile well at its CD5 field.

Eni's well will be about 6.5 miles long, said Grande, speaking Wednesday at a Resource Development Council meeting in Anchorage. Drilling is expected to begin in mid-December and take more than two months, he said.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved the company's permit to drill the submerged federal lands Tuesday, the agency announced. It said the move is a step toward achieving "American energy dominance," echoing a stated goal of President Donald Trump.

The approval was the first of its kind by the agency since 2015, when Shell was allowed to drill an exploration well in federal Arctic Ocean waters, in the Chukchi Sea, said Guy Hayes, a public affairs specialist for BSEE.


Shell, whose offshore exploration campaign in Alaska failed, shares the federal leases 50-50 with Eni. Eni is the project operator.

Successful exploration and later, development, if it occurs, could increase production at Spy Island by 20,000 barrels of oil daily, BSEE said, using Eni information.

[Shell ends Arctic exploration campaign]

The lengthy drilling will allow Eni to reach formations beneath federal waters of the Beaufort Sea. The federal waters begin 3 miles offshore. The drilling will take place from Spy Island, where Eni currently produces about 20,000 barrels of oil daily at the Nikaitchuq field. The site is northwest of Prudhoe Bay, about 15 miles.

This will be a wildcat well because no other well has been drilled in the area, Grande said.

Eni is upgrading the Doyon 15 drilling rig at Spy Island for the exploration drilling. Eni has safely drilled extended-reach wells in Alaska, close to 5 miles long, said Grande.

"We're using that same best practice, that same technology, and moving it out to reach this federal lease," he said.

The Center for Biological Diversity said Tuesday that the drilling permit from the Trump administration risks a "major oil spill" in a sensitive ecosystem that's home to whales, polar bears and other imperiled animals.

"Offshore drilling threatens coastal communities and wildlife and will only push us deeper into the climate crisis," said Kristen Monsell, oceans program legal director at the Arizona-based center. "This is a totally boneheaded decision by a reckless administration."

Before drilling begins, BSEE engineers and inspectors will inspect facilities at Spy Island. They will also review operations and witness equipment tests, the agency said.

"Exploration must be conducted safely, and responsibly in relation to the Arctic environment and we will continue to engage Eni as they move forward with drilling its exploratory well," said Mark Fesmire, BSEE Alaska Region director.

ENI US is a subsidiary of Eni, a multinational company with headquarters in Rome and Milan.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or