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Shell plan is out: Company hopes for Chukchi drilling this year; BOEM says plan complete

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Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 09.05.35By Alan Bailey of Petroleum News: Week of April 19, 2015

Shell plan is out: Company hopes for Chukchi drilling this year; BOEM says plan complete

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has deemed Shell’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan complete, has published the plan on the BOEM website and is inviting public comments on the document. Shell wants to resume its Chukchi Sea exploration drilling program during this summer’s Arctic open water season and has begun mobilizing its drilling fleet. However, the company will need a government approved plan before it can start drilling – a public comment period is part of the regulatory procedure that can lead to plan approval.

The review of Shell’s plan had been delayed as a result of an appeal against the lease sale in which Shell purchased its Chukchi Sea leases. BOEM had to rework the environmental impact statement for the sale and issue a new record of decision before reviewing any lease-related documentation.

Careful scrutiny

“We will be carefully scrutinizing this revised EP to determine whether it meets stringent environmental and regulatory standards,” said Dr. James Kendall, the director of BOEM’s Alaska OCS Region, when announcing the publication of the plan on April 10. “We have posted Shell’s revised EP online, and we invite the public and all interested stakeholders to review the document and provide us with comments.”
BOEM must conduct an environmental assessment and a technical analysis, before deciding on whether to approve the plan. Comments for the environmental assessment must be submitted by April 20, while comments on the plan itself are due by May 1.

“The execution of our plan remains contingent on achieving the necessary permits, legal certainty and our own determination that we are prepared to explore safely and responsibly,” said Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino in an email response to BOEM’s April 10 announcement. “We continue to work on securing the final permits needed to continue exploration.”

Permits that Shell still requires include authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the accidental disturbance of marine mammals.

Environmental organizations remain opposed to oil drilling in the Arctic offshore.

“There is no compelling reason for the rush to give Shell another chance this summer,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s deputy vice president, Pacific, referencing problems associated with Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling program. “There is still no proven way to respond to a spill in icy Arctic waters, and new safety and prevention rules are not in place.”

Up to six wells

Shell’s Chukchi Sea program envisages drilling up to six wells, presumably over several annual drilling seasons, in the Burger prospect, located about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright. Burger has a large geologic structure known to hold a major natural gas pool and Shell hopes to find that there is also oil in the structure. The company plans to concurrently use two drilling vessels, the drill ship Noble Discoverer and the semi-submersible drilling unit Transocean Polar Pioneer.
Each drilling rig will act as a backup relief well rig for the other, should one rig become incapacitated during a well loss-of-control incident. A relief well would plug the problem well bore with cement. And, with previous versions of Shell’s Chukchi Sea plan having just one drilling rig operating in the Chukchi, the new plan involves an increase in the number of Chukchi Sea drilling support vessels relative to those earlier plans.

In 2012 the Noble Discoverer drilled the top section of the Burger A well, the first of Shell’s wells in the Burger prospect. But, in the absence of a containment dome system, one of the Shell’s Arctic oil spill contingency assets, the company was unable to complete the well in that year. Shell will presumably re-enter and finish the well, if this year’s drilling season progresses as planned.

July 1

According to the exploration plan the drilling units will move north through the Bering Strait, into the Chukchi Sea, around July 1, to transition to the location of the Burger prospect as soon as the ice and weather conditions permit. In addition to drilling the actual wells, the drilling vessels may also prepare for further wells by drilling seafloor “cellars,” the excavations in the seafloor used to house wellheads and blowout preventers below the maximum depth of any sea-ice gouges, Shell’s plan says.
However, Shell may use a new remote operated vehicle for digging out well cellars, the plan says. The vehicle would sit on the seafloor and use an excavator bucket, a rotating cutter, a drill and other implements for excavation. Apparently the device, which has been used elsewhere for trenching pipelines, would present a number of practical advantages over conventional cellar drilling, including a considerable reduction in the amount of fluids that would need to be pumped into the sea.

The plan says that the number of wells drilled within a single drilling season will depend on sea-ice conditions and on the overall length of the season. However, each drilling unit should be able to complete a single well during a season and possibly complete a well cellar or start a second well, the plan says.

If a well is initiated but not completed within the drilling season, the well will be suspended and secured for possible re-entry in a subsequent season.

Oil spill defense

During drilling, a remote operated vehicle will be connected to the well blowout preventer by umbilical cord, thus enabling the blowout preventer to be activated remotely, subsea. In accordance with current regulations, the blowout preventer will be tested every 14 days, the plan says. Shell will also store a device known as a capping stack on one of the ice management vessels that is part of the drilling fleet. In the event that the blowout preventer fails to stem the flow of oil resulting from a well blowout, the capping stack could be lowered on the blowout preventer to seal the wellhead and optionally flow oil to surface vessels.
As a further line of defense against a potential oil spill, Shell will have its Arctic containment dome, housed in a purpose-modified barge, the Arctic Challenger. The containment dome can be lowered over a seafloor oil leak, to gather spilling oil and deliver the oil to surface vessels for storage.

The Arctic Challenger will be staged in Kotzebue Sound, as will tugs and barges for oil containment.

An oil spill response vessel accompanied by support vessels will stand by, on location, during drilling operations that may encounter hydrocarbon bearing zones.

Two tankers

Shell plans to position two oil tankers in the Chukchi while drilling is in progress. One tanker will hold fuel for the drilling fleet while also having storage capacity for gathered, oil, should a well control incident arise. The second tanker will provide additional storage capacity for gathered oil.
Vessels, operating from the port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, will maintain supplies for the drilling fleet. However, additional resupply operations may take place via Kotzebue Sound in northwest Alaska. About 30 supply trips will be required in a single drilling season.

The town of Barrow will be the primary base for aviation operations. Shell plans to maintain a 75-person camp in Barrow for its personnel and may lease additional accommodation in the town. The company plans to moor two vessels in Goodhope Bay, Kotzebue Sound, for crew changes, and may also use rooms in the village of Kotzebue, Shells plan says.

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