The grounding of a Royal Dutch Shell petroleum drilling ship on a remote Alaska island during a severe storm has refuelled debate over oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean, with critics pointing to the incident as evidence of what will happen north of the Bering Strait if drilling is allowed.

For years, environmentalists have said conditions are too harsh and the stakes too high to permit industrial development in the Arctic, where drilling sites are 1000 miles or more from the closest Coast Guard base. They say the area includes some of the planet’s most remote and fragile ecosystems, which support polar bears, endangered whales and other marine mammals essential to the subsistence culture of Alaska natives. They also believe Shell has not taken sufficiently vigorous precautions to enable it to drill safely in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

Shell says the grounding will be a learning experience in its efforts to extract oil from beneath the ocean floor. It has invested billions of dollars to prepare for drilling off Alaska’s north and northwest coast, and is confident of being able to build a multidecade business in the Arctic.

Meanwhile, with the trans-Alaska pipeline running at less than one-third capacity as reserves diminish in North Slope fields, Alaska State officials see Arctic offshore drilling as a way to replenish the pipeline and keep the economy vital.