BY A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR, A FORMER EMPLOYEE OF SHELL OIL CO
We all know that Royal Dutch Shell has no way of containing or cleaning up a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean offshore of Northern Alaska. They don’t have the equipment to handle such a disaster. This has been stated by the US Coast Guard, the US Geological Survey, and other USG agencies. Even the US government does not have the equipment to handle such a disaster and it is making no real effort to bring such equipment to the North Slope area, just in case. Yet the Dept. of the Interior, etc., are granting Shell the permits to go ahead and drill in both the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea leases.
So, what seems to be the policy here if there is a serious spill emergency or blow out that could not be contained by Shell’s unproven capping device, for what-ever reason ?
To understand how Shell and the US government apparently are approaching the problem, we need to recall what sort of hydrocarbons Shell discovered in the Burger prospect in the late 1980’s, and how Shell USA handled another potential environmental disaster associated with the Bay Marchand blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in December 1970.
In the case of the Bay Marchand blowout, which occurred on a production platform set in shallow water near the Mississippi River Delta, US regulatory authorities allowed Shell to let the platform burn for months until relief wells could be drilled. At the time of the blowout the platform was producing about 18,000 bopd and about 40 million cubic of natural gas. This blowout was the worst seen in the Gulf of Mexico up to that time. 21 of 36 planned production wells had been drilled the time of the blowout. Over 20 relief wells needed to be drilled to kill the flow of oil and gas. It took over 9 months to drill these wells and there was no alternative to this approach. The oil and gas was allowed to burn rather than cause a major environmental disaster.
The Burger prospect that Shell intends to redrill for further evaluation purposes is apparently a gas field with recoverable reserves on the order of 14 tcf with about 800 million bbls associated gas liquids (light condensate – ethane, butane, propane, pentane, etc.). Presumably, Shell expects to discover a similar hydrocarbon mix in its other Chukchi Sea prospects, and perhaps in the Beaufort Sea prospects as well.
Given the nature of the known and presumed hydrocarbon mix at these lease locations, it appears that regulatory authorities will let Royal Dutch Shell set fire to any blow out that cannot be quickly contained to prevent a major environmental disaster. The gas and the light condensate are highly flammable and will readily burn. The light condensate is also volatile and will readily evaporate.
So, if the worst were to happen and a major blow-out were to occur it appears that the US government will allow Shell to burn off the produced hydrocarbons until a relief well could be drilled, if that were to prove necessary. Should Shell not be able to cap a blown out well before the ice moves in it would appear the US government would allow the burn-off to continue through the winter and into the next drilling season. It would also appear there is not a great deal of worry about any spilled liquid hydrocarbons given that those would most likely be a light condensate which would evaporate completely with time.
In any event, the rather cavalier attitude taken by both Shell and the US government regarding spill containment can only be understood if the plan is to burn off spilled liquid hydrocarbons, as well as the natural gas, until a relief well might be drilled if that is required.
It is perhaps fortunate that Shell does not apparently expect to discover ‘oil’ because any major blowout that could not be readily capped may not burn through the nasty winter (as may not a gas and gas condensate well). This would leave behind a major environmental disaster of here-to-fore unseen proportions that could take many decades to mitigate.
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