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Shell: A shell game on drilling Arctic waters

By Joel Connelly: August 28, 2012

Shell Oil is asking the federal government to prolong the season for its exploratory drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea by at least two weeks, and to start work before a spill containment barge arrives in Arctic waters from its retrofit in Bellingham.

The oil giant has shelled out $4.5 billion on its planned drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, faced a year’s delay due to the Gulf of Mexico spill disaster, and is now planning just two exploratory wells instead of five.

Scientists from Shell predict that ice in the Chukchi Sea won’t be a factor until mid-November, weeks past the current September 24 deadline, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

In an e-mail to the Daily News, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company’s “current sea ice forecasts models are also consistent with, and corroborated by the . . . National Weather Service and an independent forecast prepared by a professor at the University of Colorado.

The requests by Shell for extended drilling have raised alarm among environmental groups.  The Chukchi Sea is a major habitat for polar bears, and feeding ground for gray whales that migrate north each year from Baja California to the Arctic.

“Basically, Shell is asking for an extension on something they haven’t even gotten permission to do yet,” said Emilie Surresco of the Alaska Wilderness League, adding:

“What’s more, while Shell seems convinced that sea ice will be late to come in this winter, residents of Nome don’t have to be reminded of how sea ice can change the best-laid plans in an instance.  Remember the ‘Brricane’ of November 2011.”

Shell is arguing that it does not need to have the containment barge in place to begin drilling.

The company argues that it will not drill in hydrocarbon zones likely to contain oil, but will only drill “top holes.”  But Respol, after making similar claims, hit an unknown gas pocket last February on Alaska’s North Slope, causing a blowout.

Shell can drill in the Beaufort Sea until October 31st.  It must halt operations during the season when coastal villagers hunt bowhead whales.  Drilling sites in the Beaufort Sea, near existing North Slope oil fields, are much closer to the shoreline.

Shell has yet to receive final drilling permits from the U.S. Department of the Interior.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressed impatience with the company on a recent Alaska visit.

The drilling ship Noble Discoverer departed Dutch Harbor last weekend bound for its drilling site in the Chukchi Sea.  (The Noble Discoverer made headlines in July by breaking loose from its moorings and drifting close to shore.)  The Kulluk, Shell’s other ship, is en route to the Beaufort Sea.

The gremlins have hit Shell, however, in the lengthy retrofit of Arctic Challenger, the 38-year-old barge that would play a key role in containing any oil spill.

“As of Monday afternoon, the barge was nearly complete, but two major issues still must be addressed before the Coast Guard will issue a needed certificate of inspection,” the Daily News reported.

“Shell shoulders some of that responsibility for the fact that the containment barge is not done,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, an oil industry ally, told Alaska reporters on Monday.

Surrusco, of the Alaska Wilderness League, remains suspicious that a shell game is going on.

“Despite Secretary Salazar’s assurances that he will hold Shell’s feet to the fire, Shell’s continued manipulation of the process and the rules begs the overall question:  Who is really in charge in the Arctic?” she asked.

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