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Arctic drilling opponents gain momentum from Gulf oil spill

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Still, there's little question that Shell's quest to drill in the arctic this year could be halted by the federal government if it chooses to deny a few critical permits sought by the company.

Indeed, the Obama Administration had seemed last week to make it clear: "No additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told TV interviewers.

But awaiting the results of an investigation may not apply to Shell.

"We are moving forward with plans for drilling because we have not been told otherwise," says Mr. Smith.

When President Obama announced his new oil drilling policy for the Outer Continental Shelf [OCS] in mid-April, just before the Deep Horizon blowout, he placed key Alaska waters – like the sensitive Bristol Bay – off limits.

But he left the door open for further oil exploration, including leases Shell purchased in 2008 during the Bush Administration to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas - a critical feeding area for polar bears and a migratory route for Bowhead whales and myriad other species.

In making that exception, however, Secretary Salazar is requiring the US Geological Survey and MMS to identify gaps in scientific knowledge about arctic drilling that could impact future lease sales. That report is due in October.

In the near term, newly ordered safety reviews now being conducted will be considered, writes Julie Rodriguez, deputy press secretary at the Department of Interior in an e-mail.

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