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Delays In Bellingham Curtail Arctic Oil Drilling

By John Ryan

Shell Oil is scaling back its plans for drilling in the Arctic Ocean this year. Icy conditions in the far North and construction problems in Bellingham have delayed the company’s efforts. KUOW’s John Ryan reports from Seattle.

Royal Dutch Shell CEO Peter Voser announced on Thursday that Shell only expects to drill two wells off Alaska’s northern coast this summer, not the five it had planned.

“A great deal of planning has gone into this program, with over 20 vessels to cover the drilling and contingencies,” Voser says.

One of those vessels is the Arctic Challenger. It’s a specialized oil-spill containment barge that’s under construction and behind schedule in Bellingham. Shell can’t do any drilling until the Arctic Challenger is in place.

The Challenger was supposed to be in Alaska by now. Instead, contractors on the Bellingham waterfront are still working on it. The Coast Guard has been inspecting the parts of the vessel that have been completed.

Federal regulators are waiting for Shell to finish construction before testing the barge’s oil-spill containment system.

Inspectors will run seawater from the depths of Puget Sound through the system to simulate vacuuming up oil from 130 feet underwater. That’s the depth of Shell’s Arctic drilling sites. The agency expects to start those tests around August 1st.

Once the Arctic Challenger has its federal seals of approval, it will take at least two weeks to tow the barge to the Arctic.

That means the window is quickly closing on Shell’s plans to start drilling this year. The company is only allowed to drill in ice-free areas, during the brief Arctic summer.

Ice cover in most of the Arctic Ocean is far below average this summer. Scientists say early signs of global warming are most pronounced in the Arctic.

But in areas where Shell wants to drill, the ice has remained near normal levels.

Shell has spent more than $4 billion in hopes of turning the Arctic Ocean into America’s next major oil-producing region.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio


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