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Drill rigs wind up operations in Arctic Alaska seas

October 31, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • The Kulluk drill rig is preparing to leave the Beaufort Sea.
The Kulluk drill rig is preparing to leave the Beaufort Sea. (Royal Dutch Shell )

SEATTLE — The Kulluk drilling rig was in the process of dismantling in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska on Wednesday, concluding Shell Alaska’s troubled debut season of offshore drilling in the U.S. Arctic.

Company officials said the Noble Discoverer rig was already headed south out of the Chukchi Sea, and operations in the Beaufort were coming to a close on the last day allowed under federal permits for drilling, prohibited after the onset of winter ice.

“Given the challenges we faced from the perspective of sea ice and logistics in deploying assets and employees to the Arctic for the first time in two decades, we’re very pleased with the work we accomplished,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told the Los Angeles Times.

Shell engineers said they completed drilling of “top holes” in two wells, one in the Beaufort and one in the Chukchi, which have established wells in the area just below the seafloor, above the oil deposits. By leaving anchors installed at those locations, they will quickly be able to begin plumbing hydrocarbon reservoirs when drilling resumes next summer.

The company is permitted to drill up to 10 exploratory wells under its federal offshore permits.

The debut drilling season in a rarely explored corner of the world has been watched closely, both by advocates who see it as a promising new avenue to reach one of the world’s largest remaining oil deposits, and by conservationists who fear the delicate and hazardous nature of the Arctic is not suited for oil and gas production.

Shell’s opening endeavor ran into more than its share of obstacles.

First, the Discoverer drillship went adrift and nearly hit the beach in July on its way up to the Arctic, near Dutch Harbor. Then an unseasonable fortress of ice blocked access to drilling sites until much later in the season than normal, delaying the onset of drilling. There were repeated delays in obtaining U.S. Coast Guard certification for the oil spill containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger, which didn’t win final approval until Oct. 11 — meaning no actual drilling into hydrocarbon reservoirs could take place this year.

The high-tech containment dome for gathering any oil spilled during a blowout was damaged during testing. New high-tech air emissions control equipment proved better than anything else ever devised, but not quite as good as envisioned in Shell's original Environmental Protection Agency permit, forcing the company to apply for a permit amendment.

And even once “top hole” drilling got under way in the Chukchi Sea, engineers had to back off after the first day for a brief time when yet another massive block of ice loomed within 10 miles of the drilling site.

“Shell’s efforts this past year should serve as a cautionary tale for the future. We learned that even one of the world’s biggest oil companies clearly is not prepared to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean,” Michael Levine, Pacific senior counsel for the conservation group Oceana said in an interview.

“We all want healthy oceans and affordable energy, but drilling in the Arctic without the necessary scientific information or demonstrated response capability will get us neither,” he said.

Once the fits and starts of getting the endeavor launched were out of the way, there were no reports of problems in the drilling operations.

“As we witnessed, it takes time to get the assets in place, and of course Mother Nature proved again this year that we’re not always in charge of our own destiny,” Smith said. “But every day we spent drilling this summer will be a day that puts us that much closer to the objective in 2013.”

Lawsuits over the Arctic operations will likely proceed over the winter months, even while the drilling is on hiatus.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to decide early next year on an environmental challenge to the federal lease sale that authorized drilling in the Chukchi Sea. Litigation over Shell’s oil spill response plan has been consolidated before the U.S. District Court in Anchorage, and the 9thCircuit has been asked to decide how to proceed with several pre-emptive lawsuits Shell filed against environmental organizations seeking early court approval of the company’s various federal permits.

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-- Kim Murphy, in Seattle

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