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Shell Oil to Conduct Chukchi Sea Sonar Surveys

By Chris Klint Channel 2 News: 2:36 p.m. AKDT, July 22, 2013: ANCHORAGE, Alaska—

Shell Oil plans to conduct sonar work in the Chukchi Sea this year, inspecting seafloor sites where it might build pipelines to offshore oil wells if its exploration plans for the Arctic ultimately bear fruit.

The geophysical survey work, considered ancillary to Shell’s Arctic exploration plan, involves visiting federally controlled regions of Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf to assess the presence of “ice gouges” in the seafloor caused by passing icebergs or shallow hazards to navigation. It involves a single vessel towing a magnetometer and a sonar array, which measures sound returns from an airgun to map the seabed. About 620 miles of ice gouge surveys will be conducted, along with nearly 2,000 miles of shallow hazards surveys.

The survey indicates Shell’s continued interest in Arctic drilling, despite its decision in February to shelve its 2013 plans for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. That move followed difficulties such as the New Year’s Eve grounding of the conical drilling unit Kulluk, as well as safety and pollution violations aboard the drillship Noble Discoverer — issues which caused both ships to be taken to Asia for repairs.

In a July 17 letter to Shell (PDF), the Alaska region office of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says it has no objection to Shell’s plans, provided that they comply with federal law.

“Our review indicates that the ancillary activities described in the notice comply with the performance standards,” David Johnston, the regional supervisor for the Alaska region’s Office of Leasing and Plans, wrote. “Accordingly, BOEM has no objection to Shell proceeding with the ancillary activities.”

In an April 19 environmental impact statement sent to BOEM (PDF), Shell says the sonar surveys, which have been taking place since 2008, will “generate data necessary to evaluate the physical environment in the vicinity of Shell’s on-going Chukchi Sea exploration program for the possible future location of facilities to support continued exploration activities.”

BOEM spokesperson John Callahan says that while the bureau reviewed Shell’s plan to determine whether it complies with federal law, the company isn’t legally bound to seek federal approval before conducting its survey work — as it was in August 2012, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar granted Shell a permit for its drilling work.

“There was not that issue of giving Shell a permit to drill,” Callahan said.

While BOEM’s opinions weren’t binding on Shell, the company also submitted its plans to other federal groups, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s a very collaborative process involving scientists from a bunch of different agencies,” Callahan said.

Shell Alaska spokesperson Megan Baldino didn’t have formal comment on BOEM’s memo, noting that the sonar work in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is an ongoing project that has been approved and conducted in previous years.

BOEM’s letter to Shell includes a list of precautions to minimize biological impacts on marine mammals and birds, including fresh tests of its airgun when it moves into new areas to determine the underwater radius of its noise. In addition, Shell vessels are asked to minimize the use of work lights on deck to avoid unnecessarily attracting birds.

Contact Chris Klint

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