Shell's withdrawal from the Beaufort and Chukchi seas isn't all good news for the Arctic

It's tempting to think of the latest oil-drilling news as a victory: Royal Dutch Shell PLC announced that it was ending its barely begun operations in the Arctic seas off Alaska because its first exploration showed disappointing stores of oil in an area that had been considered one of the most promising.

The withdrawal from the Beaufort and Chukchi seas follows similarly abandoned plans by Exxon and Chevron in other parts of the Arctic.

Certainly, Shell's withdrawal is a victory — although perhaps a temporary one — for the environment. Drilling in the seas off Alaska is particularly risky because of stormy waters and unpredictable ice. The area is also home to important marine species, especially walrus, which could be endangered by spills, among other things. Because no one believed there was enough oil in the Arctic to power the United States for more than four years, drilling operations in the area were never worth the risk. Now, with an even more disappointing show of oil under the seafloor and oil prices crashing, Shell decided that, at least for the foreseeable future, it was indeed not worth the risk.

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