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Persistence: Shell applies again for offshore permit

Daily News – Miner

10 October 2010


Shell isn’t giving up easily on its investment in oil fields off Alaska’s coastline. Last week, the oil company once again applied to federal officials for a permit to drill an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea — this time in the summer of 2011. It’s in Alaska’s interest that the process works this time and the company gains the necessary permission slips.

Shell’s efforts to drill exploratory wells on its Beaufort Sea offshore leases have been stymied for several years by court cases and administrative delays. It secured a significant victory in court this spring, with a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld Shell’s exploration plans for both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Then the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out and took Shell’s plans for this season with it.

In the wake of that explosion, Shell voluntarily strengthened its plans for dealing with any oil release from its proposed exploratory wells in the Arctic. It has committed to have a containment system on hand that would capture oil from a blowout, for example. Such a system was absent in the Gulf well disaster and, once it was built, didn’t work in the mile-deep waters.

Water in the Beaufort Sea is relatively shallow — most of it is less than 100 feet. So the challenges created by extreme water pressure aren’t present. Also, the geology of the ocean bed off the arctic coast makes blowouts less likely, as state officials have explained.

Still, opponents of drilling continue to attack every step in the process, and they find some cracks. In July, for example, a U.S. District Court judge stopped any further work in the Chukchi Sea because the government hadn’t analyzed a few aspects of a lease sale well enough to satisfy federal law.

All this argument has a huge cost. Some of Shell’s offshore leases in the Arctic are halfway through their 10-year lives. Time is running short to find the oil that Alaska needs to stave off continued declines in the trans-Alaska pipeline and the state’s income. The seas off our northern coastline are among the more promising places to find that oil.

The cold, remote water and the ice that floats on it create challenges for the safe development of those fields, without a doubt. But that concern in itself cannot defeat the company’s rights.

Congress has made the judgment these areas be leased. Shell alone estimated last spring it had spent $3.5 billion on its Alaska offshore operations. Unless Congress wants to turn our oceans into parks and pay back the billions in lease fees, the process must give Shell and other companies a fair chance to safely explore and extract what they find.

Copyright 2010 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. All rights reserved.
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