MMS conditionally approves Shell's Beaufort Sea exploration plan

The US Minerals Management Service approved Shell Offshore Inc.’s exploration plan for two Beaufort Sea leases with stringent conditions, the US Department of the Interior agency said on Oct. 19.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Oct. 20 -- The US Minerals Management Service approved Shell Offshore Inc.’s exploration plan for two Beaufort Sea leases with stringent conditions, the US Department of the Interior agency said on Oct. 19. Environmental groups immediately protested the action.

MMS said Shell obtained the two leases during US Outer Continental Shelf Lease Sales 195 and 202 in 2005 and 2007, which were part of the 2002-07 5-year leasing program. They were not affected by the recent federal court decision which sent the 2007-12 program back to MMS for additional analysis under Section 18 of the OCS Lands Act, MMS said.

It said that Shell plans initial activity on the leases during the July-October open water drilling season. Operations would be conducted using the M/V Frontier Discoverer, a modern drillship retrofitted and ice reinforced for operations in arctic OCS waters, it said.

Shell also plans to take a midseason break beginning Aug. 25, 2010, and remove the vessel from the area to accommodate subsistence bowhead whaling by the Alaska Native villages of Kaktovik and Nuiqsut, MMS added. Activity may resume following the hunts and run through Oct. 31, depending on ice and weather, it said.

The company’s exploration plan also will have to be consistent with Alaska’s Coastal Zone Management Plan before drilling can commence, according to MMS. It also will need to obtain drilling permits from MMS, and meet US Environmental Protection Agency air and water quality rules and Marine Mammal Protection Act requirements of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, MMS said.

Shell’s plan is limited to the far western area of Camden Bay, including the use of one drillship with one tending ice management vessel, it indicated.

Groups protest
Eight environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, protested the decision. “Once again, MMS approved a drilling plan without a full analysis of the potential consequences,” said David Dickson, the Alaska Wilderness League’s Western Arctic & Oceans program director.

The plan would involve use of a drillship “and an armada of support vessels and an armada of support vessels and aircraft, [which] would generate industrial noise in the water while emitting tons of pollutants into the air and thousands of barrels of waste into the water,” the groups said in a joint statement.

The risk of an oil spill in the area’s waters is high, yet there is no technology and very little capacity to clean a spill up in icy Arctic conditions, they added.

“The reality of offshore oil drilling is that accidents will happen, and when oil spills in Arctic ice, there is no cleaning it up,” said Chuck Clusen, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s national parks and Alaska projects director.

“A blow-out like the one that recent despoiled waters off the coast of Australia would leave oil in the waters off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for decades, killing whales, seals, fish, and birds, and turning irreplaceable spawning and feeding grounds into an ecological wasteland,” he declared.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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