Shell gets BSEE clearance for limited Chukchi Sea activities

The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved certain limited activities in nonoil-bearing zones by Shell Offshore Co. in the Chukchi Sea offshore Alaska. The company will be allowed to create a mudline cellar, which ensures that the blowout preventer is adequately protected below the sea floor, and other safety preparations, BSEE Director James A. Watson said.

“Shell’s applications for permits to drill into potential oil reservoirs remain under review, and Shell will not be authorized to drill into areas that may contain oil unless and until the required spill containment system is fully certified, inspected, and located in the Arctic,” Watson said.

Shell also will be allowed to drill and set the first two strings of casing into shallow nonoil-bearing zones, Watson told reporters in an Aug. 30 teleconference. “Today’s announcement authorizes Shell to move forward with limited activities well short of oil-bearing zones that can be done safely now prior to the certification and arrival of the containment system,” he said.

BSEE said inspectors from the US Department of the Interior agency recently completed an initial inspection of Shell’s spill containment system, but the company has not obtained its final certification from the US Coast Guard.

Alaska’s two US senators applauded BSEE’s action. Lisa Murkowski (R), the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s ranking minority member, said that it would let Shell begin the necessary preparations while maintaining high environmental standards to protect the Arctic. “While we would all like to see a discovery this summer, the most important thing is for Shell to continue to make progress and demonstrate once again that Arctic drilling can be done safely,” she said.

Mark Begich (D) said he was pleased to see DOI recognizing the importance of moving ahead with Chukchi Sea exploratory drilling this summer. “Today’s decision shows flexibility while not sacrificing safety,” he observed. “This allows us to get one step closer to understanding and moving forward on the energy potential of the Arctic.”

Environmental organizations expressed disappointment. “Shell will be authorized to drill approximately 1,400 ft down into the ocean floor even though its oil spill containment barge has not been certified and is still two weeks away from the drilling site,” said Andrew Hartsig, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program in Anchorage. “[US Sec. of the Interior Ken Salazar] claims he is holding Shell to the highest standards, but today's decision tells a much different story.”

“Today’s action looks like the administration is playing right into Shell’s game of acting like drilling is inevitable,” added Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “While this is an interim step only, this is like a building inspector letting a developer start construction on a skyscraper on shaky ground before the safety plans are even complete.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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