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Interior Dept.: Shell can prepare for oil drilling in Arctic

August 30, 2012|By Neela Banerjee
  • The Arctic Challenger, a containment barge designed to capture oil spilled during drilling, is seen in Bellingham, Wash.
The Arctic Challenger, a containment barge designed to capture oil spilled… (Russ Kendall, Bellingham…)

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has given permission to Shell Oil to begin what it calls “preparatory work” in its controversial effort to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the permission will allow Shell to install a blowout preventer ahead of exploratory oil drilling. The preparatory work involves drilling to install the needed equipment, but the drilling will avoid pockets of oil and gas, Salazar said.

Shell still has other hurdles to cross before it can actually drill for oil -- and winter deadlines are looming.

Thus far, Shell's efforts to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska have been delayed by a series of glitches, including the lack of federal certification for the barge Arctic Challenger. The barge is an integral part of the spill-response system that the company must have in place before getting the final go-ahead for its plans.

“It is our highest priority that any activities that occur offshore Alaska be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards,” said James A. Watson, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement at the Interior Department.

“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.”

Shell had initially planned to drill up to five exploratory Arctic wells over the summer, but has now scaled its plans back to one or two wells. So far, no new wells have been drilled. 

For the company to proceed, it needs federal certification of the Challenger, a 38-year-old barge retrofitted to float between drilling rigs in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. In the event of a well blowout and oil spill, the Challenger would deploy a large dome to capture the oil at the wellhead, bring it to the water’s surface and pump it into a storage tanker.

Salazar said that Shell most recently told the Interior Department that Challenger would be ready for certification in four or five days, but its deadlines have slipped before.

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neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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