Salazar may squeeze Shell schedule for Arctic season
In this July 14 photo provided by Capt. Kristjan B. Laxfoss, a Shell drilling ship drifts near shore near Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. The Coast Guard says an inspection of the Shell drilling ship that lost its mooring and drifted toward shore shows no signs of damage or grounding.
Capt. Kristjan B. Laxfoss/AP
Shell’s schedule for drilling may be squeezed tighter. U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in Washington, D.C., July 18 that he could wait until as late as Aug. 15 to make a final decision on drilling permits for Shell.
That means the company is being pushed into starting drilling in the third week of August, three weeks later than its original date of the last week of July.
Shell must complete any drilling into hydrocarbon-bearing zones in the Chukchi Sea by Sept. 24 under lease conditions laid down by the Interior Department.
With a late start, Shell will not be able to complete the three exploration wells it had planned in the Chukchi Sea, although work to prepare other wells, to be finished in 2014, can continue.
The company has more flexibility in the Beaufort Sea where it will be able to drill into October. Shell plans two test wells in the Beaufort Sea.
Ice conditions are also complicating Shell’s plans, although those were showing improvement on August 19, Shell officials said.
Salazar said another unresolved problem for Shell is the final approvals needed for a new spill response barge that is still in Seattle undergoing U.S. Coast Guard inspections. The spill barge must be in the Arctic with the rest of Shell’s fleet before drilling can begin.
Needed modifications to Shell’s air quality permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, although minor, add another wrinkle.
Meanwhile, Shell suffered an embarrassing mishap July 14 when its drillship Noble Discoverer slipped its anchor in Dutch Harbor and drifted toward shore, pushed by winds.
Shell inspected the drillshop for damage with a subsea Remote Operated Vehicle but found no damage, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. That was verified by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The ship was within 500 feet of shore when its crew was able to move the vessel further out for re-anchoring.
“While moored off the coast of Dutch Harbor, the Noble Discoverer drifted toward land and stopped very near the coast. One of Shell’s vessels, the Lauren Foss, then safely towed the Discoverer to its prior mooring position,” Smith said in a statement. A divers’ inspection was done as a precaution, he said.
A U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman said the vessel appeared not to have actually grounded.
“There were no reports of damage to the vessel or pollution,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis, the spokeswoman, said.
A soft seabed in Dutch Harbor apparently allowed the vessel to drag its anchor, and winds up to 35 mph may have been a contributing factor, Francis said.
The Noble Discoverer is in Dutch Harbor along with a second Shell drilling vessel, the Kulluk, and several support vessels. Shell plans to move the ships to the Arctic in late July as ice conditions improve off Alaska’s northern coast.
On the air permit modifications, Shell has asked EPA to make minor changes to federal air quality permits issued to the drillship Discoverer and mobile drill structure Kulluk, both now en route to the Arctic to drill exploration wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska, a Shell spokesman said Thursday.
The air permits issued to Shell by EPA have been the subject of litigation by environmental groups working to halt the company’s Arctic exploration, and there is concerns with any changes to the permits because of potential new lawsuits.
“One of the generators on the Discoverer has tested slightly above the permitted threshold for ammonia and nitrous oxide releases,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. The company has been unable to find a solution to solve the problem but the generators are not major sources of air pollution and the Discoverer is still within its overall emissions limit even with the problem, Smith said.
EPA has agreed to issue a Compliance Order allowing the higher emissions that is a short-term solution and for the longer term will consider modifying the permit itself, Smith said.
On the Kulluk, there are no technology issues but an error in the technical language of the permit that needs correction, he said. The Kulluk is considered a Minor Air Source under EPA rules while the Discoverer is a Major Air Source, a designation that requires a more stringent permit standard for air emissions.
The Noble Discoverer is due to drill exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea, off the northwest Alaska coast, while the Kulluk will be moved to the eastern Alaskan Beaufort Sea to drill test wells. Shell hopes to be drilling in the first week of August, company officials have said.
Tim Bradner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.