Shell gets OK from feds to drill in Beaufort Sea

Although federal regulators today gave Shell the green light to begin initial drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea, that work will wait until native Alaskans finish their fall hunt of the bowhead whale migrating through the area.

With the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s decision, Shell soon will be able to begin the same kind of top-hole drilling and site preparation in the Beaufort that it launched earlier this month in the neighboring Chukchi Sea.

Shell officials have already conceded they will not attempt to drill into underground zones that could contain oil and gas, because an emergency spill containment system isn’t ready and won’t be on site before ice moves in and closes down exploration this year.

Under the permit approved today, Shell will be able to dig a hole in the sea floor to hold a blowout preventer that will be used to safeguard against unexpected surges in oil and gas from the wellhead. By putting the BOP underground, the company aims to keep it out of the way of unexpected large ice floes that could otherwise damage the equipment.

The company also will be able to bore a pilot hole roughly 1,400 feet below the sea floor to check for unexpected obstructions or pockets of oil and gas, before eventually widening that hole and filling it with pipe and cement. The federal permit will allow Shell to complete the first two casing strings at the well using its Kulluk conical drilling rig.

“BSEE has set the bar high for exploration activities in the Arctic, and any approved operations must meet those standards,” said the agency’s director, Jim Watson, in a statement. “BSEE continues to closely monitor Shell’s ongoing approved preparatory drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea, and today’s approval of limited work in the Beaufort Sea must also meet the same rigorous safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards.”

Shell president Marvin Odum said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle on Monday that he hopes the top-hole drilling this year to lay the foundation for Shell to complete wells next year.

Shell estimates that about half of the time it will take to drill its Arctic wells to their target depth is consumed by initial drilling and site preparation.

The company has made plans to complete up to 10 wells by the end of the 2013 Arctic drilling season.

Under an agreement reached with native Alaskans and codified in the government’s conditional approval of Shell’s broad drilling blueprint, the company is waiting for the conclusion of the seasonal bowhead whale hunt before conducting operations in the Beaufort Sea.

Environmentalists have been sharply critical of Shell’s Arctic drilling plans and say that there is no proven way to clean up oil if it spilled in the cold, remote waters.

Dan Ritzman, the Arctic program director for the Sierra Club, noted that “ice is already starting to re-form in the Arctic.”

“Given Shell’s recent inability to even successfully test its oil spill response system in calm waters, allowing it to move forward now, even with limited drilling, exposes the Arctic’s incredible wildlife to harmful noise and puts the local subsistence cultures at risk,” Ritzman said.