BSEE approves Shell's Beaufort Sea oil spill response plan

The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.’s oil spill response plan (OSRP) for the Beaufort Sea on Mar. 28. The company still must obtain well-specific drilling permits before commencing operations, the US Department of the Interior agency noted.

“We have conducted an exhaustive review of Shell’s response plan for the Beaufort Sea,” BSEE Director James A. Watson said. “Our focus moving forward will be to hold Shell accountable and to follow-up with exercises, reviews, and inspections to ensure that all personnel and equipment are positioned and ready.”

US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar, during a Norfolk, Va., press conference announcing release of a draft programmatic environmental impact statement for a planned seismic survey program on the South and Mid-Atlantic US Outer Continental Shelf, said he was satisfied with Shell’s modified Beaufort Sea OSRP after reviewing it with Watson and US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Tommy P. Beaudreau.

“That does not mean Shell will move forward this summer because it still has to get final permits to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” Salazar said, adding, “This is a milestone, however, because Shell couldn’t get those permits without approved exploration and [OSRPs]. The final permits are still undergoing evaluation.”

BSEE said Shell plans to stage a full suite of response assets near the offshore drill site for immediate response, while also having additional equipment available for quick delivery in the event that sustained spill response is necessary. The agency’s approval follows months of comprehensive internal, public, and interagency review, including involvement of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska, chaired by Deputy US Interior Sec. David J. Hayes.

Substantial rewrite

Shell was required to substantially rewrite previously approved Arctic OSRPs to make clear its plan to mobilize and sustain a massive response over an extended period, according to BSEE.

It said changes and more-stringent requirements for the company included preparing for a worst case discharge nearly three times that of its previous Beaufort Sea plan, and in adverse weather conditions; graphing the trajectory of the potential worst case discharge over 30 days, instead of the 3-day graph in Shell’s previous OSRP; identifying specific equipment it would use for dispersant application and in-situ burning; and providing additional details on the logistics of bringing equipment in from outside the region.

Shell still must submit applications for permits to drill each proposed well, the agency emphasized. It said each application will be analyzed based on the proposed well’s unique characteristics and must fully comply with rigorous safety and environmental standards imposed by Interior following the 2010 Macondo deepwater well incident and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These include requirement addressing well design, workplace safety, and the operator’s ability to deal with a blowout and worst-case discharge, it said.

BSEE said Shell has proposed a well control containment capability that consists of a combination of a subsea capping stack, and surface separation equipment that will be located on a newly-built containment vessel, all of which the agency will inspect before allowing any proposed operations to begin.

It said Shell also must comply with requirements imposed by BOEM in its conditional approval of the company’s Beaufort Sea exploration plan. These conditions include requirements that Shell have available and demonstrate its ability to deploy a well capping and containment system, as well as take measures to avoid conflicts with Native Alaskan subsistence activities.

Whale monitoring

Specifically, beginning on Aug. 1, Shell must employ an approved, site-specific bowhead whale monitoring program. The company also must suspend any Beaufort Sea drilling operations by Aug. 25 and may not resume activity until after nearby Native Alaskan villages have completed their subsistence hunts and Shell has received approval from BOEM, according to BSEE.

A spokesman for Shell in Alaska said in an e-mailed statement that BSEE’s approval of the company’s Beaufort Sea OSRP, on the heels of its recent approval of the company’s Chukchi Sea OSRP, reinforces that Shell’s Arctic exploration approach is in line with Interior’s expectations for a global offshore oil and gas leader. BSEE’s action adds to Shell’s confidence that drilling can finally commence on its shallow water leases off Alaska this summer, he added.

“We maintain that the unprecedented amount of time, technology, and resources we have dedicated to preparing for an extremely unlikely worst-case scenario makes Shell’s oil spill response plan second to none in the world,” the spokesman said. “That plan includes the assembly of a 24/7 on-site, near shore and onshore Arctic-class oil spill response fleet, collaboration with the US Coast Guard and a newly engineered Arctic capping system.”

Alaska’s two US senators welcomed BSEE’s action. “Today’s approval by [DOI] marks one of the last major hurdles that Shell must overcome to explore for oil in Alaska’s northern waters this summer,” Republican Lisa Murkowski said. “This is good news for Alaska and the nation, which needs the energy, jobs, and economic activity responsible exploration and, ultimately, production will bring. This is the type of decision that will improve America’s long-term energy security.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Mark Begich observed: “As we continue to push the White House to develop Alaska’s vast energy potential, approval of this oil spill response plan affirms that we are moving in the right direction toward opening the Arctic and helping to achieve America’s national and economic security while creating thousands of much-needed jobs.”

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said BSEE’s action ignores facts and continues to give a green light to oil and gas drilling off Alaska’s Arctic coast. “There is no viable way to clean up an oil spill in the extreme conditions of America’s Arctic Ocean, yet the Obama administration continues to give the green light to Shell Oil’s plans for drilling this summer,” she said. “We can only hope that President [Barack] Obama shows the leadership he promised and refuses to bow to the demands of Big Oil by not granting Shell the final permits it needs to begin drilling in July.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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