The Obama administration is suspending proposed exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean in order to prevent a repeat of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster.

Oil from BP’s leaking rig burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico Photo: Sipa Press / Rex Features

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says in a report to be delivered to the White House later today that he will not consider applications for permits to drill in the Arctic until 2011. Shell Oil is poised to begin exploratory drilling this summer on leases as far as 140 miles offshore. An administration official familiar with the plan said Mr Salazar wants to allow further study of proposed drilling technology and oil spill response capabilities in Arctic waters. Mr Salazar has said he wants to take a cautious approach in the Arctic.

President Barack Obama ordered Mr Salazar to conduct a review of the nation’s offshore oil drilling safety after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last month.

In March, Mr Obama and Mr Salazar cancelled a planned 2011 lease sale in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where oil development was proposed by the Bush administration. They cancelled four scheduled lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and said no additional leases would be offered there until more scientific data was collected.

An administration official said Mr Salazar believes that fisheries, tourism and environmental values in Bristol Bay make the area inappropriate for oil and gas drilling.

Shell, which has leases in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, had sought to begin drilling five exploratory wells in those areas this summer. Mr Salazar’s announcement means those wells will not be considered until 2011.

Mr Salazar also is directing the US Geological Survey to conduct an independent evaluation of oil spill risks and spill response capabilities in the state.

Shell Oil, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, has the backing of Alaska’s political leaders. With few exceptions, they support offshore drilling, a stance articulated by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP nominee for vice president.