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Shell seeks to drill off Alaska

Beaufort Sea plan includes improved oil spill response system

By TOM FOWLER Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

Oct. 6, 2010, 10:08PM

Royal Dutch Shell has applied for a permit to drill in the shallow waters of Alaska’s Beaufort Sea next year and unveiled plans for an improved oil spill response system for the Arctic.

The well, in the Sivulliq prospect about 15 miles off Alaska’s North Slope, will be drilled in about 120 feet of water. The Noble Discoverer rig is lined up for the job, but a second rig has been stationed in Dutch Harbor to be on hand to drill a relief well in the event of a blowout or other accident.

In 2009, the government approved Shell’s offshore Alaska plan for exploration, which included drilling in the Chukchi Sea, but environmental and community groups challenged the decision. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the plan in May, but the federal drilling moratorium and issuance of new rules following BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident further delayed plans to drill.

Only one well

The new permit application is for just one well in the Beaufort. Any Chukchi plans will wait until courtroom challenges are resolved, Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby said in a conference call Wednesday.

“We have every reason to believe the administration will permit 2011 exploration drilling in Alaska,” Slaiby said. “We should have approval by the fifth of November, but that could be extended.”

Shell also released details of an oil spill containment system to capture oil at the source in the event of a shallow-water blowout.

The system looks similar to the containment domes BP used with varied success in trying to capture some of the oil flowing from the blown- out Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico this past summer.

Sea ice a complication

The shallower depths and lower pressures expected in the Arctic should make spill containment and response easier compared to the Gulf of Mexico. But the presence of sea ice for part of the year and the sites’ remote locations create other challenges.

Because the Arctic Ocean ices over for part of the year and sea ice sometimes pushes down into the seafloor, the blowout preventer and other wellhead equipment would be located in a 40-foot-deep hole — known as a mud line cellar – in the seafloor. This helps protect the equipment from ice but makes efforts such as placing a new capping system on a leaking well not feasible.

The presidential commission looking into BP’s oil spill said Wednesday that Shell’s Arctic spill response plan should be given closer scrutiny given the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon. In a paper on Arctic spill response, the commission credits Shell with exceeding current spill response requirements in its Alaska plans.

“But other drillers may not,” the paper says.

Coast Guard presence

The paper also says there should be an closer look at increasing Alaska’s Coast Guard resources to respond to a possible Arctic spills, since it’s only industry resources available for such problems.

“Because the Coast Guard has an admitted lack of response capacity in the Arctic, immediate responsibility would fall on industry and their oil spill response contractors,” the paper says. “Shell, at least, accepts this responsibility.”

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, warned that the area Shell plans to drill in is frequented by endangered bowhead whales. She said the Department of Interior should require Shell to submit an entirely new exploration plan.


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