In a move to expand America's domestic oil and gas exploration, the Department of the Interior began to reverse a moratorium on offshore drilling by approving Royal Dutch Shell's request to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean.

While President Barack Obama has in the past declared his willingness to make domestic oil production a component of his energy policy, he halted offshore drilling after last summer's disastrous blowout of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. But with gas prices and unemployment soaring, the administration appears willing to ease the restrictions.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean has long divided the oil and gas industry, which sees the resources under the ocean as an immensely lucrative opportunity, and environmental advocates and Alaskan natives who warn of a spill's ruinous consequences for the ecosystem, including the fish some natives rely upon for their livelihoods.

Shell cannot begin actually drilling into the seabed until it garners a second round of permits. But by winning tentative approval to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea, the company is moving closer to that goal. It has proposed four wells at a depth of about 160 feet of water 20 miles from the Alaska shoreline, a sharp contrast with the BP well, which plunged 5,000 feet underwater.

Experts saw the thaw on the Obama administration's part as more of a return to a policy abandoned in the wake of the BP disaster than  a reversal.

"This strikes me as a shift back to the track that the administration to last year's oil spill," Michael Levi, an energy and environmental fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times. "It sees the lesson that the administration took is that offshore drilling needs to be regulated better and done better, not that it shouldn't be done at all."