Shell begins petroleum drilling in Chukchi Sea
Mon, 10 Sep 2012 8:37a.m.
By Dan Joling and 3 News online staff
More than four years after Royal Dutch Shell paid US$2.8 billion to the US federal government for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea, a company vessel on Sunday morning sent a drill bit into the ocean floor, beginning preliminary work on an exploratory well 113 kilometres off the northwest coast of Alaska.
Drilling began at 4:30am, said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.
The drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, is the same ship that was boarded in February by a group of Greenpeace activists including actor Lucy Lawless. The group staged a protest against Shell’s drilling plans.
After spending four days aboard the ship the activists were arrested and charged with burglary. However, the burglary charges were later dropped and the activists pleaded guilty to unlawfully boarding a ship. The seven activists – along with an eighth man who was arrested before the protest began – are due to reappear for sentencing in the New Plymouth District Court on September 14.
Shell Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby called the beginning of the new drilling project historic.
"It's the first time a drill bit has touched the sea floor in the U.S. Chukchi Sea in more than two decades," Mr Slaiby said in a prepared statement. "This is an exciting time for Alaska and for Shell. We look forward to continued drilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to adding another chapter to Alaska's esteemed oil and gas history."
Federal officials estimate Arctic waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 3.68 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced August 30 that Shell would be permitted to begin preparation work at the Chukchi site even though the company's spill response barge has not been certified and is not positioned nearby.
The company is authorized to drill narrow pilot holes 427 metres below the ocean floor and roughly 1.22 kilometres above a petroleum reservoir.
Shell has spent upward of US$4.5 billion for Arctic Ocean drilling but had been thwarted from drilling by environmental lawsuit, regulatory requirements and short open-water drilling seasons. Despite the requirement to stay out of oil-bearing rock, they were elated to finally begin work.
"In the days to come, drilling will continue in the Chukchi Sea, and we will prepare for drilling to commence in the Beaufort Sea," Mr Slaiby said.
Drilling is bitterly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a spill in ice-choked water. They say a spill of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico would be catastrophic in a region hammered by climate warming and home to endangered or threatened marine mammals such as bowhead whales, polar bear and walrus.
Shell officials say there's little chance of that happening. They are drilling in about 39.6 metres deep, versus 1.5 kilometres at the site of the gulf spill, and wellhead pressure is expected to be far less. Shell also claims its support vessels could quickly choke off and respond to a spill.
Mr Smith said workers Friday completed mooring of the drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, in heavy seas with eight anchors that each weigh 13.6 tonnes and are staged on the seafloor in a circular pattern. The diameter of the anchor pattern, he said by email, was more than 1.98 kilometres.
A 6-by-12-by-12-metre mud-line cellar will allow a blowout preventer to be positioned below the seafloor, protecting it from ice scraping the bottom.
The oil spill response barge remains in Bellingham, Washington, and is expected to undergo sea trials over the weekend, he said.
Shell's other Arctic Ocean drill ship, the Kulluk, is in the Beaufort Sea waiting for the fall whale hunt to end before moving to the drill site.
‘Shell is woefully unprepared to operate in the Arctic’ – Greenpeace
Environmental group Greenpeace says Shell has experienced a series of problems en route to beginning the drilling of its first exploratory well in Arctic waters.
In a statement, the group says that on top of a number of regulatory hurdles, the Noble Discoverer was recently involved in one incident where it dragged its anchor and almost ran aground.
Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo says this should be a concern to investors and those worried about the possible environmental impact of drilling.
“Shell’s embarrassingly problematic summer should serve as a warning to investors across the world. From human errors to fierce storms, the company has ably shown that it is woefully unprepared to operate in the Arctic, one of the world’s most hostile environments,” says Naidoo.
Greenpeace says the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap – itself a result of climate changes – is facilitating the efforts of major oil companies to push into Arctic waters in search of oil and gas.
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