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Petroleum News: MMS approves Shell’s exploration plan

Vol. 12, No. 8  Week of February  25, 2007

The regulatory process for Shell’s Beaufort Sea drilling plans passed a major milestone Feb. 15 when the U.S. Minerals Management Service approved the company’s eastern Beaufort Sea exploration plan and the accompanying oil discharge prevention and contingency plan. MMS said its analysis found that Shell’s plans would not cause “undue or serious harm or damage to the human, marine or coastal environment.”

The exploration plan approval only relates to Shell’s drilling-related activities in the Beaufort Sea. On Feb. 6 MMS issued a separate permit for Shell’s proposed 2007 3-D seismic operations in the Beaufort Sea; the agency is still reviewing a Shell permit application for acquiring 3-D seismic in the Chukchi Sea.

All of the MMS approvals are subject to conditions that must be met before the planned operations can be carried out. In particular, the offshore activities require incidental harassment authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service; a conflict avoidance agreement with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the North Slope village whaling captains associations; and a bowhead whale monitoring program. The lighting configuration on drill ships must be configured to minimize the attraction of birds to the structures. And Shell must verify the absence of historic shipwrecks at the Sivulliq site where the company plans to drill in 2007.

Drilling of any Beaufort Sea well will also require an MMS drilling permit.

Approval of the oil discharge prevention and contingency plan is contingent on 22 conditions being met, including the need for clarification of some of the communications arrangements and the clarification of some response procedures. MMS will also require Shell to conduct equipment deployment exercises and a tabletop exercise to demonstrate the viability of the plan.

On Feb. 16 the 50-day review period for the Alaska Coastal Management Program review for Shell’s Beaufort Sea drilling program began. In its ACMP filing Shell identified 12 possible locations for geophysical surveys, exploration and appraisal drilling — seven locations with Flaxman Island names on blocks 6658, 6707, 6708, 6709, 6765, 6824, and 6874; four locations with the name Barter Island on blocks 6801, 6802, 6962, and 7117; and one location with the name Harrison Bay on block 6222. The project description in the public notice said a total of 16 vessels would be operating in the Beaufort in connection with the drilling program in 2007.

Deadline for written comments under the ACMP review is 5 p.m. on March 19.

—Alan Bailey

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