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Shell proposes to move forward in Beaufort Sea

October 6, 2010 |  8:56 pm

With the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico successfully contained, Shell Alaska announced that it has filed an application to proceed with exploratory offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska.

The Obama administration suspendedall offshore operations in the remote, fragile Arctic seas this year in the wake of the BP spill, but Shell officials said they have prepared a more robust oil blowout containment plan and are ready to proceed next summer with a single well 17 miles off the North Slope.

The company said it is postponing an even more controversial plan to drill in the more-distant Chukchi Sea until litigation over that proposal is resolved.

“We think we’ve got what we need in place to make a strong program even stronger,” Pete Slaiby, Shell Alaska’s vice president, said in a conference call with reporters in Anchorage.

The company has not submitted a new exploration plan, as drilling critics have sought, but has scaled back its original drilling schedule and put into place new oil spill containment equipment, including a dome that could be quickly put over a leaking well, and a beefed-up blowout preventer.

In addition, Shell said it is proposing to install a subsea panel that would allow the blowout preventer to be engaged in an emergency, even if the connection were lost between the emergency device and the surface drilling rig.

In coordination with research now underway in the Gulf of Mexico, the company is continuing to look for ways to build a containment cap that would allow any blowout to be immediately sealed. The containment dome now proposed would collect oil from any blowout and funnel it to surface vessels for collection, much like what happened for several months after the BP blowout.

“We have every reason to believe the administration will permit 2011 exploration drilling in Alaska,” Slaiby said in a statement. “The president himself endorsed our Alaska exploration program last spring. Unfortunately, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy occurred and led to a suspension of offshore activities in Alaska. Since then, Shell has taken extraordinary steps to build confidence around our 2011 program, which involves a limited number of exploration wells in shallow water with unprecedented, on-site oil spill response capability.”

But it is unclear whether the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will approve the permit application or require additional measures.

Unlike the BP deep-water operation in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell’s proposed exploration well in the Beaufort Sea would be drilled in just 108 feet of water, with what company officials said would be much lower well pressures.

Slaiby said new studies have shown a worst-case blowout scenario of only about half the 5,500-barrel-per-day containment capacity required under Alaskan regulations, an amount well within the capability of the fleet of vessels Shell expects to have nearby, including a tanker with a storage capacity of 513,000 barrels of oil.

Conservationists have sought to halt any drilling in Arctic waters until more studies are done to measure the potential effects on species such as bowhead whales and polar bears, and the ability of the delicate, frigid Arctic environment to recover from an oil spill and expanded industrial activity.

They have advocated preparation of a full environmental impact statement before any new drilling is undertaken; the federal government, as in the Gulf of Mexico, has concluded that expected environmental impacts are not significant enough to warrant a full report.

“They really should be required to submit a whole new operation plan anew, given what we learned in the Gulf of Mexico, including that there could be a blowout from this type of [exploration] activity,” said Michael LeVine of the conservation group Oceana in Juneau, Alaska.

Marilyn Heiman, head of the Pew Environment Group’s Arctic program, said the public has never had a chance to fully review Shell’s oil spill program and has no way of independently ascertaining whether the company’s calculation of relatively low pressures within the proposed well are accurate.

“We have to just take the word from the industry of what the flow rate and the pressures are. What is the Department of Interior doing to have somebody determine that’s accurate? Look, they didn’t even know the size of the spill at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.

Conservationists say they are particularly concerned that even Shell’s beefed-up containment plan might not work if a blowout occurred late in the drilling season, when high seas, hurricane-force winds, fog and shifting ice could make it difficult for a collection ship to remain attached to a containment device below the surface.

“What do they have that really works in the Arctic Ocean?” Heiman said. “If the equipment’s icing up, they will not be able to do what the [traditional cleanup] equipment says they can do.”

–Kim Murphy

Rendering: Shell has designed a new containment dome that, in the event of a blowout, would be fitted with the aid of a remotely operated submersible over the wellhead, and spilled oil would be diverted to a containment barge on the surface. Credit: Shell Alaska


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