Shell to resume Arctic drilling after 3-year pause

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Defying protests and armed with approval from the U.S. government, Royal Dutch Shell has sent a pair of drillships to Alaska’s Chukchi Sea to resume oil exploration there for the first time since 2012.

Shell’s revised plan for the Arctic, approved May 11 by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), involves drilling up to six wells in 140 feet of water in the Burger Prospect. The operations will be conducted 70 miles offshore by Polar Pioneer and Noble Discoverer, which was part of the company’s problem-plagued effort in the region three years ago. 

“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,” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in a news release. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

Shell’s campaign to drill in Alaska’s Arctic waters has been stymied since 2012, when the drillship Kulluk broke loose from tugboats on New Year’s Eve and ran aground off Sitkalidak Island. The company also suffered setbacks that year with Noble Discoverer. It was cited for safety and pollution violations after it lost propulsion and had to be towed to the port of Seward.

Shell plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea in 2015 after a three-year absence.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Shell submitted a revised proposal in 2014 for Chukchi Sea drilling. The plan included having two drilling units in the area instead of one “in the event of a well control incident,” adding more support vessels and oil response equipment, and increasing the frequency of visits by support vessels to the drillships.

BOEM approved the plan over the objections of environmentalists, who cited a high risk of oil spills in a remote region subject to severe weather. Drilling opponents were dealt another defeat when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) acted lawfully when it approved Shell’s spill-response plans for its leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Ten groups had argued in a lawsuit that the BSEE’s actions were arbitrary and capricious.

Environmental protesters in kayaks targeted Polar Pioneer in May and June while the drillship was in Seattle, which Shell plans to use as a staging base for its Arctic operations. The company faced opposition from Mayor Ed Murray, who said Shell lacked the proper permit to berth its drilling rigs along the waterfront. Murray urged the Port of Seattle to reconsider its lease with Shell client Foss Maritime, which prepared Polar Pioneer for Arctic duty at the port’s Terminal 5. Noble Discoverer was moored in nearby Everett, Wash.

The BSEE granted Shell two final authorizations in late July that will allow drilling to resume. The drilling season runs from July 15 to Sept. 28.

By Professional Mariner Staff