Sven Zacek—Getty Images
By Justin Worland
Updated: May 11, 2015 4:06 PM ET

The federal government has approved Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic from this summer, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced Monday.

The oil and gas giant still must receive approval from other agencies, but a stamp of approval from the federal BOEM removes what was perhaps the plan’s most significant potential stumbling block.

“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper in a statement. The drilling would be consistent with “high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” she said.

The decision drew immediate condemnation from environmental groups that argued the plan could lead to an oil spill worse than the 2010 spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico while also threatening local wildlife and entrenching American reliance on fossil fuels. In particular, environmental groups pointed to Shell’s troubled 2012 Arctic exploration efforts as evidence that the company isn’t prepared to launch a large-scale drilling operation in the area. The company struggled to deploy spill containment technology during testing, and, later, an inoperational drilling rig nearly ran aground.

“We can’t trust Shell with America’s Arctic,” said Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan in a statement. The 2012 incidents “demonstrated to the nation that drilling in the Arctic is reckless and irresponsible and that no oil company should develop there.”

Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith said that the company is currently testing to ensure operations meet “the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator.” Further permits should be issued promptly, he said. “The approval of our Revised Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan is an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan,” he said in an email. “It’s imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner.”

The relationship between environmental groups and the White House has been fraught with disagreement as well as collaboration throughout the Obama presidency. Environmental groups have praised Obama’s aggressive stance on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they have also criticized his support of efforts to allow drilling in new areas like the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Southeastern U.S.

“This decision places big oil before people, putting the Arctic’s iconic wildlife and the health of our planet on the line,” said Erik Grafe, a staff attorney at environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, in a statement. “Arctic Ocean drilling is far too risky and undermines the administration’s efforts to address climate change and transition to a clean energy future.”

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