Shell announced Sunday it had begun drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea at the Burger A prospect, but had to suspend those operations on Monday due to sea ice headed toward the site. - Photo Provided

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Shell sinks drill in Arctic, briefly

September 14th, 2012 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

A swath of sea ice interrupted Royal Dutch Shell Oil's drilling operations Monday only hours after the company began drilling the first exploratory well the Chukchi Sea has seen in some 20 years.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said Tuesday afternoon that the Noble Discoverer drill ship had moved 30 miles south and plans to stay there until the ice has cleared from the Burger Prospect.

The prospect, which is 70 miles from shore, was in the path of a ice floe some 30 miles long, 12 miles wide and up to 82 feet thick, passes through. It is currently moving at 0.5 knots to 0.2 knots, Smith said, and was expected to have moved through the area by early Wednesday morning.

While environmental groups reportedly called Shell's necessitated move another indication that drilling for oil in the Arctic is ill-advised, Smith said Shell's move to pull out of it's drilling location another example of how the company's drill plan has built in safety precautions.

"For us, this is erring on the side of caution as you always should," Smith said. "We have the technology and the expertise to work in the Arctic safely."

The year has not been an easy one for the company, however. Shell has struggled to get its spill response barge online, and air permits for its Beaufort Sea drill rig, the Kulluk, are still pending. The company's original plan to drill five exploratory wells this year has now been scaled back to two. Perhaps the biggest obstacle this year, however, has been persistent sea ice, which delayed operations for nearly a month, leaving only a small window of time in which to drill this year. Shell has applied for a two-week extension on its permit to drill the hydrocarbon zone, which was to expire Sept. 24, though drilling operations could continue out of the hydrocarbon zone until Oct. 31.

Meanwhile, the drill rig the Kulluk is in a holding pattern in the Beaufort Sea until whalers from the villages of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik say the season is over. The Nuiqsut whalers had used three of their four allotted strikes as of Tuesday, Smith said, while the Kaktovik whalers had only used one of their three. As for the needed air permits, Smith said the company is confident that when they need those permits, they will have them.

Finally, the barge, which has spent the summer in Bellingham, Wash. being retrofitted was undergoing its second day of sea trials on Tuesday and Smith said the company hoped to release information about the vessels departure date soon.

Greenpeace, however, responded to news Sunday that Shell was commencing drilling by pointing to a string of setbacks for the company's 2012 drilling plans, and saying that moving forward with drill operations in the face of evidence was unsafe.

"Shell has ignored the world's best scientists, as well as millions of people around the world, who have all said repeatedly that the melting Arctic is a dire warning, not an invitation to make a quick buck," said Dan Howells, Greenpeace deputy campaigns director, in a written statement. "The company's Arctic drilling program this summer has not only been an epic PR failure, but a dangerous logistical failure as well. They've only proven one thing this summer, that oil companies are simply not equipped to deal with the unique challenges of operating in the Arctic."

Smith said, however, that the delay in Shell's operations this summer is just an indication that the company is committed to doing it right. The company's ice management plan includes a set of safeguards built into each level of the drilling operation that estimates how much time it will take to pull out of the operation and suspends drilling whenever sea ice moves in within a predetermined distance from the drill rig, depending on the drilling stage. The plan, essentially, allows the company to stay ahead of the ice.

"I think this latest identification and mitigation just underscores the expertise and the cautious approach that we are taking," Smith said. "We have proved that in a textbook way in the last 24 hours."


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