Shell set to gain Arctic drilling permits this summer image

Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) will win government permits to drill for oil in Arctic waters this summer, a top Obama administration official predicted Tuesday.

“If Shell meets our standards and passes our inspections, exploration activities will be conducted under the closest oversight and most rigorous safety standards ever implemented in the history of the United States.”

The company has been there before, drilling exploratory wells in the 1980s and 1990s that showed tantalizing promise of riches deep below the freezing Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Speculation is that Shell has learned a lot and may be poised to hit the jackpot this time,” says environmental chemist Jeffrey Short of JWS Consulting in Juneau, Alaska.

However, many fear that offshore drilling in the challenging conditions of the north, and around sensitive and understudied ecological systems, could spell disaster. Some contend that Shell’s emergency-response plans have holes, and that even regular operations could disrupt species such as bowhead whales.

Arctic drilling has been challenged in court by environmental groups and some native Alaskans who say it may lead to a disaster similar to BP Plc (BP/)’s well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, triggering the biggest U.S. offshore spill.

Also oil and gas exploration is loud, often for many hours at a time.

Shell has spent billions of dollars on Alaska Arctic exploration already, and the company says it’s working to reduce its sound impact on marine mammals.

The Arctic areas will be part of Interior’s five-year offshore lease plan being sent to Congress on Thursday.