The Interior Department conditionally approved Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill in waters off Alaska's coast Monday in a ruling that could soon end Shell's tortuous saga to become the first energy producer in the U.S. Arctic.

"We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska natives," Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper said.

The move is a win for the oil and gas industry, which has criticized the Obama administration for moving to slowly to allow Arctic offshore drilling. It's a setback, however, for environmental groups that sought to keep those waters off limits out of concern for climate change and to prevent spills in the fragile Arctic.

For Shell, though, the decision brings some clarity after years of uncertainty and frustration.

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