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Shell flotilla begins assembling in Dutch Harbor

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“Once again, Shell is up to their old tricks, deliberately ignoring federal regulations. We urge President Obama to cancel Shell’s lease and prevent them from drilling in the Chukchi Sea,”

Dutch Harbor will be busy in the next couple of weeks as Shell’s Arctic drill fleet converges on the Aleutians port, prior to heading north for the Chukchi Sea.

Shell’s spill containment barge Arctic Challenger is already in Dutch Harbor, having arrived June 14, and the semi-submersible mobile drill rig Polar Pioneer is now en route from Seattle, Shell spokeswoman Meg Baldino said June 23.

A second drilling vessel, Noble Discoverer, is meanwhile still in port at Everett, Wash., making preparations to sail to Dutch Harbor.

“The Discoverer has received its certificate of compliance from the Coast Guard, which involves a series of inspections of safety systems like fire protection and lifeboats,” Baldino said. “It’s a routine step before a vessel sails from one port to another.”

Other support vessels in Shell’s fleet, which will total about 25 in addition to the two drill vessels and the spill containment barge, are also heading west or preparing to sail, Baldino said.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are continuing to press federal officials in Washington in attempts to stop Shell, and may file another lawsuit in a last-ditch effort.

The latest development is a letter sent by nine environmental organizations to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on June 23 complaining that Shell’s drilling plan would place its two drill ships nine miles apart in the Chukchi Sea, which is contrary to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations stipulating that drill ships be 15 miles apart.

“Once again, Shell is up to their old tricks, deliberately ignoring federal regulations. We urge President Obama to cancel Shell’s lease and prevent them from drilling in the Chukchi Sea,” said Athan Manuel, director of land protection for the Sierra Club, in a statement.

In an article in the Houston Chronicle, Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said her agency was reviewing Shell’s plans to ensure compliance. Baldino would only say, “We continue to consult with regulators on the terms of a Letter of Authorization.”

The company is planning to have both the Polar Pioneer semi-submersible and the drillship Noble Discoverer drilling this summer at the Burger prospect, about 70 miles offshore. Interior’s rules also require Shell to have two rigs in the area so that one can assist the other in the event of a drilling emergency.

Shell has received almost all of its permits for the summer Chukchi Sea exploration program except the Letter of Authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has to do with possible impacts on walruses and polar bears, and the final authorizations to drill from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The drilling authorizations typically come later, when an applicant is close to the start of operations. A letter from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has jurisdiction over marine mammals, has been received by Shell.

The Burger prospect was actually a discovery made by Shell in the early 1990s when it previously drilled in the Chukchi Sea, but the find, which appeared then to be mostly natural gas, was not considered economic to develop at the time.

Since then, Shell has done more analysis with modern exploration technology and now believed Burger to be much more prospective, including for oil, than was previously believed. The company had relinquished its leases in the 1990s but re-leased them from the federal government in an Outer Continental Shelf lease sale in 2008.

Preparations are meanwhile underway for this summer on an extensive logistics network to support Shell’s drilling. The company has leased the former Kulis Air National Guard facility at Ted Stevens International Airport, as it did to support drilling in 2012, and has temporarily renamed the facility, “Shell Anchorage Airpark.”

Barrow, the nearest large community near the exploration area, will be the main aviation support center, Baldino said, while oil spill response equipment is being staged at Wainwright, a community southwest of Barrow on the Chukchi Sea coast. The Arctic Challenger will meanwhile be kept on standby near Kotzebue.

“We also have a logistics terminal at Wainwright. We also have dedicated space for storage and laydown,” of equipment, Baldino said.

Barrow will be a busy place this summer.

“In Barrow we have an aviation terminal. We upgraded the old Era Aviation terminal at the airport and that is where all of Shell’s chartered passengers will go. Our crew change helicopters and a SAR (search and rescue) helicopter will operate out of Barrow,” Baldino said.

“We are leasing both hangers from Frontier Flying Service,” which are known also as the old Cape Smythe Aviation hangers, she said. Shell will also have three personnel camps in Barrow managed or owned by local Alaska Native corporations.

In terms of personnel, Shell’s 2015 program will be similar to that of 2012 when about 2,000 people overall were involved with about 800 of them Alaska residents recruited in the state.


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