Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he saw "great promise" in the resource base in Alaska. In the arctic frontier, he said, cautious exploration would support the goal of increasing domestic oil and natural gas production.
"We are taking a cautious approach, one that will help inform the wise decisions of tomorrow," he said in a statement.
His comments come as energy company Shell secured approval from the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for its oil spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea.
Shell wants to drill up to six wells in the region.
The American Petroleum Institute estimates as much as 700,000 barrels of oil per day could be produced from Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi Seas for 40 years.
The Interior Department said approving the oil spill response plan doesn't mean Shell has authorization to begin drilling, however. The company needs to get well-specific drill permits before it can start work in the shallow waters off Alaska's coast.
Environmental groups say they worry about the consequences of potential oil disasters in arctic waters.