The US Interior Department's safety and environment watchdog on Tuesday approved an application by Eni's American subsidiary to drill wells under the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.
It is the first time the US has issued a permit to drill in its Arctic waters since 2015. President Donald Trump has indicated that he will reverse a ban on offshore drilling in protected parts of the Artic Ocean that his predecessor, Barack Obama, introduced last year.
The area that Eni has permission to explore does not fall under that ban. The company plans to drill four exploration wells more than ten kilometres into the sea from an artificial island about five kilometres from Alaska's northern coast.
Environmental groups warn that the project poses a risk to Alaskans and to wildlife.
“The Trump administration is risking a major oil spill by letting this foreign corporation drill in the unforgiving waters off Alaska,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which says that the area is home to vulnerable species including polar bears and bowhead whales.
“Offshore drilling threatens coastal communities and wildlife and will only push us deeper into the climate crisis.”
Eni had held the leases to the area for more than years without being allowed to act on them. Without a permit they were due to expire at the end of this year.