Shell’s drilling rig begins two-week trek to Arctic sea

Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig began a two-week journey to the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska on Monday, marking a major step forward in the company’s slow march toward a new era of oil exploration in the region.

The 29-year-old conical drilling rig is being towed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to Shell’s Sivilluq prospect, where the company hopes to drill at least one well before ice encroaches on the region this fall.

The departure of the Arctic-bound rig is a sign of Shell’s confidence that the company soon will be able to launch drilling in the area, despite setbacks that have shortened its window for oil exploration. Shell executives say they now are aiming to complete two wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer, down a previous goal of five.

“We expect to drill this year,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh. “It’s disappointing to lose any days in such a small window, but we look forward to making the most of the time we have.”

The company has been waiting for ice to clear, federal drilling permits and for a critical oil spill response vessel to be ready before it can begin the work. That spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, still awaits a Coast Guard certification and approval from federal drilling regulators.

Shell committed to regulators to have the Challenger containment barge at the ready during drilling in hydrocarbon-bearing zones as part of the company’s oil spill response plan for the region.

Op de Weegh said Shell isn’t backing down from that pledge.

But Shell still could ask regulators for permission to begin other work at the well sites, even if the barge is still in Washington state. For instance, the company could seek approval to begin excavating a space for key emergency equipment in the seabed.

Shell officials have previously said that is a possibility. In a conference call with reporters last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said no such request had yet been made.

“We are committed to having the Arctic containment system in place before drilling through liquid hydrocarbon zones, and that commitment will not change,” op de Weegh said. “We are nearing completion of this first-of-its-kind Arctic containment system, which houses response, containment and separation processes in one vessel. While it’s a fourth line of defense in the unlikely event of a loss of well control, it will not be deployed until it meets our high standards.”

Conservationists say there is no guarantee Shell’s capping stack and containment system would work in case of an emergency; they note that the devices are untested in Arctic waters.

Environmental critics have ramped up their criticism of Shell’s plans, as federal regulators move closer to approving drilling permits for some of the company’s planned Arctic wells.

The Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report Monday that concluded the environmental risks of the proposed drilling are unacceptably high. It would be immensely challenging to clean up oil spills in the Arctic ocean, and even without an emergency, “Shell’s offshore oil and gas activities threaten vulnerable wildlife,” the group said.