Shell's first drilling in Arctic now pushed into August

With its Arctic drill fleet now assembled in Dutch Harbor, Shell is waiting on unpredictable Mother Nature. Summer ice conditions along the northern Alaska coast are the worst in a 10-year period, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said July 9.

The heavy ice has caused target dates for the company’s first drilling at two exploration prospects in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to be pushed into the first week of August, Smith said.

“This is the heaviest ice coverage we have seen in a decade,” he said.

In a related development, a coalition of environmental groups filed new lawsuits July 10 in federal court in Anchorage over the federal government’s approval of Shell’s oil spill cleanup plans.

The actions are not aimed at stopping Shell’s 2012 drilling, however, but are instead aimed at forcing the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to enforce a more rigorous standard in approving spill plans for future drilling that would follow if Shell is successful this summer, said Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, which is one of 10 plaintiffs in the case.

LeVine said the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 sets high standards for offshore spill safeguards and that the BSEE did not meet them in approving Shell’s spill plan for the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

As for Shell’s immediate problem, the ice, Smith said the company is making its own reconnaissance flights as well as relying on satellite remote sensing data. Shell is sharing its high-resolution images of the ice with federal agencies which monitor ice cover across the entire polar region.

There is a long-range trend of thinning and a reduction of the summer Arctic icecap but this year’s condition is created by currents pushing the remaining ice up against the northern Alaska coast, creating a barrier.

Smith said Shell’s observations show that some of the ice is thick, multi-year ice.

Shell had hoped to have its drillships and support vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in late July. The delay creates a particular issue in the Chukchi Sea because the U.S. Interior Department has ordered the company to cease drilling into any hydrocarbon-bearing zone by late September.

The company had originally hoped to drill three test wells in the Chukchi with its contracted drillship, the Noble Discoverer, but even before ice became a problem, the September restriction would allow the company to complete only two wells, Shell has said, although work could be done to prepare wells for completion in 2013.

The delay forced by ice could jeopardize Shell’s plans to complete even two wells in the Chukchi. Shell’s permits for the Beaufort Sea allow it to drill into October, so the company has more flexibility at that location.

The initial Chukchi Sea target is the Burger prospect about 70 miles offshore the northwest Alaska coast. The Beaufort Sea prospect is east of Prudhoe Bay and in an area about 20 miles offshore from the Point Thomson gas and condensate field, which is 60 miles east of Prudhoe.

Discoveries have been made previously at both locations, by Shell itself in the early 1990s in previous Chukchi Sea exploration, and in the Beaufort Sea by Unocal Corp. at a prospect near where Shell will drill.

Meanwhile, Shell’s drilling fleet has left a Seattle shipyard and is now mostly in Dutch Harbor.

“The Discoverer arrived at Dutch Harbor on (July 7) along with other support vessels. The Kulluk, which is being towed, is about five or six days out from Dutch Harbor,” Smith said.

Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, is being used as a staging area before Shell’s fleet, which totals 22 vessels, moves on to the Arctic through the Bering Strait. Shell has spent about $4.5 billion in its Alaskan Arctic exploration program to date, the company has said.


Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected].

07/12/2012 - 9:45pm