US authorities extended Royal Dutch Shell’s right to drill exploration wells in the waters off Alaska on Tuesday.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a letter of authorisation allowing the accidental disturbance of polar bears and Pacific walrus during Shell’s drilling work.
Intentional harassment is not permitted.
The authorisation specifies measures that Shell must take to minimise the effect of its work on the animals, including that there be a minimum spacing of 15 miles between drilling rigs or seismic survey vessels, as conservation groups sought.
But that was not sufficient for the groups, which still urged President Barack Obama’s administration to stop the drilling.
Chris Krenz, Arctic campaign manager for pressure group Oceana, said the government seemed to want to meet Shell’s timeline, rather than taking time to do the appropriate analyses.
“The closer the Shell rigs encroach on the Chukchi Sea, the further the Obama administration retreats from its promise to leave a strong climate legacy,” said Friends of the Earth spokeswoman Marissa Knodel.
Shell could begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea in mid-July.
The letter of authorisation arrived as Shell’s second Arctic drilling ship, the Noble Discoverer, left Washington en route to Alaska.
The 572-foot ship was escorted out of the harbour by two tugboats and two coastguard vessels.
The coastguard service said it had detained five protesters in kayaks who had tried to stop the vessel as it left on Tuesday morning.
The activists were charged with violating a safety zone around the ship. All were later released.