Shell gets federal greenlight for exploratory Arctic drilling

Shell gets OK for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Sea.

Conditional permits limit operations and set protections for marine mammals

Staff Report

FRISCO — Shell’s Arctic drill plans got a green light from federal regulators today, as the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement issued a pair of conditions permits for limited exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska.

The permits limit Shell to drilling in the top sections of wells. The company won’t be allowed to probe deep in into the oil-bearing zones until well-capping equipment is on hand and deployable within 24 hours — which still leaves enough time for thousands of gallons of crude to leak into the sensitive and pristine Arctic Ocean.

A capping stack is what BP was unable to deploy in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It’s needed to shut in a well in the event of a loss of well control.

Shell’s capping stack is staged on the vessel M/V Fennica, which is currently en route to Portland, Oregon, for repairs. If and when the M/V Fennica is capable of being deployed in the Chukchi Sea and Shell is able to satisfy the capping stack requirement, the company may submit an Application for Permit to Modify the permits.

“Without question, activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards,” said BSEE director Brian Salerno. “Without the required well control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones. As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship.”

Conservation activists questioned whether Shell is anywhere close to meeting those standards.

President Gene Karpinski issued the following statement on the Obama Administration’s conditional approval of Shell to begin drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean:

“Shell has provided zero confidence it can be trusted to operate in a remote, pristine, and unforgiving environment like the Arctic Ocean,” said League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski, referring to string of disastrous Arctic forays by Shell in recent years, including a runaway ship and a string of environmental violations before the company got anywhere close to the drill sites.

“We have other, cleaner ways to power our economy that don’t risk a devastating oil spill or increase the pollution fueling climate change. We will continue to make the case that Arctic Ocean drilling … is incompatible with President Obama’s strong record on and desire to address climate change,” Karpinski added.

Other permit conditions are intended to protect marine mammals in accordance with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirements, which require Shell to maintain a minimum spacing of 15 miles between active drill rigs during exploration activities to avoid significant effects on walruses in the region.

None of that satisfies critics of Arctic drilling, who explained that the oil reserves in the region must be left untouched if the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming.

 “Today’s decision takes us in exactly the wrong direction — it puts an irreplaceable region, its people, and its wildlife directly in harm’s way and veers us off a course on addressing climate change,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Erik Grafe.
“Drilling in the Chukchi Sea risks significant effects on walruses and whales in the rapidly warming Arctic Ocean even without an oil spill. And the science is clear, Arctic Ocean drilling is incompatible with avoiding the worst effects of climate change,” Grafe said. “Wrong as it is, this decision won’t stop the demand for change. We call on the Obama administration to show leadership and re-consider its course on Arctic Ocean drilling.”

The permits let Shell proceed with drilling at two locations at the Burger Prospect which are located less than 15 miles apart. Shell is prohibited from conducting simultaneous drilling activity at these wells. Specifically, Shell must plug and abandon the top section of the first well before proceeding with any drilling activity at the second well site.

Shell is also required to have trained wildlife observers on all drilling units and support vessels to minimize impacts to protected species. Shell must stay within explicitly outlined vessel operating speeds and report daily regarding all vessel transits.

The BSEE said they only approved the permits after reviewing Shell’s ice management plans in the absence of the M/V Fennica as well as the consistency of the plans with protections in place for marine mammals.

In addition to redundancy provided by other ice management support vessels, Shell will employ aerial reconnaissance over flights, satellite imagery and other measures to monitor ice floes to fulfill the operational goals of the ice management plan in terms of early detection and site safety. The use of these enhanced technologies will allow Shell to meet its operational requirements for ice management, while conforming to the Hanna Shoal Walrus Use Area restrictions identified by the USFWS.

Federal regulators will be aboard the drilling units Noble Discoverer and Transocean Polar Pioneer 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide continuous oversight and monitoring of all approved activities. The inspectors are authorized to take immediate action to ensure compliance and safety, including cessation of all drilling activities, if needed.

The Burger Prospect is located in about 140 feet of water, 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright.

Shell’s Exploration Plan and established numerous additional stringent safety requirements that must be met before Shell can drill into oil-bearing zones, including:

  • All phases of an offshore Arctic program – preparations, drilling, maritime and emergency response operations – must be integrated and subject to strong operator management and government oversight, as detailed in Shell’s Integrated Operations Plan;
  • A shortened drilling season to allow time for open-water emergency response and relief rig operations late in the drilling season before projected ice encroachment;
  • Capping stack must be pre-staged and available for use within 24 hours;
  • A tested subsea containment system must be deployable within eight days;
  • The capability to drill a same season relief well;
  • A robust suite of measures to avoid and minimize adverse impacts to marine mammals and their habitat, impacts to Native subsistence activities, and other environmental impacts; and
  • Drilling units and their supporting vessels must depart the Chukchi Sea at the conclusion of each exploration drilling season.

The Department has also published proposed regulations to ensure that future exploratory drilling activities on the U.S. Arctic Outer Continental Shelf are done safely and responsibly, subject to strong and proven operational standards and Shell’s Chukchi Sea operations are being held to many of standards in the proposed regulations.


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