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A Wise Pause On Arctic Drilling

Shell announced that the company is hitting the pause button on oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic. Mother Nature graphically demonstrated this summer what conservation groups have been saying for more than a decade—the extreme weather and conditions of the Arctic, with its stormy, frozen seas make the Arctic environmentally treacherous for oil drilling.

Fortunately, it didn’t take a major oil spill and devastation of the fragile Arctic ecosystem for Shell to put its damaged drill rigs in a time out.

The Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk will spend this spring and who knows how many more months, perhaps years, in dry dock, recovering from the 2012 exploration season. So far, Shell isn’t speculating when they will return to the Arctic, but as sure as the Arctic ice is melting, Shell’s shareholders will care about the investment of more than $4.5 billion in leases and equipment dedicated to the offshore activities in the region.

Now the Obama administration has time to perform a thorough assessment of Shell’s operations last summer, rather than a rushed 60-day review. The administration should look not only at Shell’s problems but also at the flaws in its own review and standards that let such ill-considered operations go forward. It needs to apply the lessons learned to a careful overarching analysis of the whole idea of going after the extreme oil of the Arctic.

To allow this review, the administration should suspend all permitting and further Arctic offshore drilling activities. Shell has been the guinea pig for the industry, proving to its Big Oil brethren waiting in the wings to go north that extreme exploration isn’t as easy as it looks on paper. A full review will give the administration a chance to determine whether hunting down the extreme oil of the Arctic meets President Obama’s pledge to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

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