Discoverer drillship sets sail for Shell’s Arctic leases

The Noble Discoverer began a one-week trek to the Chukchi Sea on Saturday afternoon, moving Shell one step closer to drilling for oil in Arctic waters this summer.

The drillship, which left Dutch Harbor for Shell’s Chukchi drilling site on Saturday afternoon, comes one week after the company’s Kulluk drilling rig launched its own two-week journey north.

The vessels’ departure marks the first time that working drilling rigs have chartered a course for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in roughly two decades, during the last era of oil exploration in U.S. Arctic waters.

It also reflects Shell’s confidence that the company will conduct some drilling during a brief ice-free window for the work, even though a critical oil spill containment barge is still being retrofitted in a Washington state shipyard and hasn’t won the Coast Guard’s certification.

When the Interior Department approved Shell’s broad drilling blueprints for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, it said drilling permits individual wells were contingent on the company satisfying the terms of its oil spill response plan, including a system for capping and containing a runaway underwater well.

And in a conference call with reporters on Aug. 13, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was committed to stiff oversight of Shell.

“I will hold their feet to the fire in terms of making sure we are doing everything we can to abide by the regulation we have set and to make sure that the environment and the Arctic seas are protected by their activities,” Salazar said.

But Shell and federal regulators now are discussing a plan that would allow the company to begin some initial work at the well sites, even without the Challenger nearby.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh confirmed that the company was “in consultation with the Department of Interior on drilling the early part of the well.”

“We remain in communication with regulators on options for beginning preliminary drilling activities while adhering to our commitments,” op de Weegh said. “No drilling will take place without consultation with the Department of Interior.”

If the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement signs off, Shell could begin excavating a 20-foot by 40-foot mud line cellar, designed to hold critical emergency equipment just below the sea floor.

Shell also could seek regulators’ approval to launch the very earliest drilling at its well sites, boring a “top hole” in 1,300 feet and stopping well before reaching the expected oil and gas reservoir at the sites. Such top hole drilling would allow Shell to come back and finish the wells later this year or next.

Shell must stop drilling in hydrocarbon-bearing zones by Sept. 24 in the Chukchi Sea and Oct. 31 in the Beaufort Sea.

Op de Weegh stressed that Shell would only drill in liquid hydrocarbon zones once the Challenger is nearby.

“We remain in full agreement with the Department of Interior that drilling into liquid hydrocarbon zones will not commence until the Arctic containment system has arrived in theatre,” she said.

Shell Oil Co. has spent nearly $5 billion and seven years preparing to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It awaits just a few government approvals _ including the safety bureau’s drilling permits _ before it can launch the work.

The Discoverer is expected to reach the Chukchi Sea drilling site within a week; once there, it would be connected to anchors recently staged over Shell’s leases in the area.

The Kulluk is now six days into its two-week trek to Shell’s Beaufort Sea leases.