ABOARD THE DRILLSHIP NOBLE DISCOVERER _ Here on top of the world, nearly 400 miles above the Arctic Circle and 70 miles from the nearest land, optimism is as boundless as the Chukchi Sea stretching on the horizon.
Despite repeated setbacks, many on the 124-person team boring an exploratory well for Shell are convinced the company will strike oil here, opening a new frontier in U.S. oil development and making a discovery that could rival the bounty in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s a whole new area,” said Craig Amos, a Halliburton employee who helps track pressure and other data poring from Shell’s Burger Well A. “People haven’t drilled this far offshore,” and while “it’s been tested,” the last exploration was more than two decades ago.
The potential is huge, and everyone on board knows it, Amos said.
“They say it’s bigger than Texas,” he added.
The enthusiasm was palpable early last month, when Shell began boring its first well in the Chukchi Sea, more than two decades after the last round of exploration in the region.
Loyd Wallace, Shell Alaska’s senior drilling supervisor on the project, was overseeing work that night, when the drill bit first started spinning into the seabed — a moment, he said, that was like Christmas.
“Everybody was excited,” he said. “Everybody was taking photos.” Workers even put the date on the bottom hole assembly to mark the occasion.
Even after 35 years in the industry — much of it in the Gulf of Mexico — Wallace said he was humbled by the experience.
“It made chills go up and down your spine . . . to know we accomplished this,” Wallace said.
“It’s like moving from college to the pros,” he added. “The first time you drill the hole — it’s unbelievable.”
Months of stops and starts and recent setbacks in a six-year quest for Arctic oil helped fan the enthusiasm. Earlier this year, it wasn’t at all clear that Shell would be able to satisfy federal offshore drilling overseers and environmental regulators to launch the work.
Even after the Interior Department signed off on Shell’s broad drilling blueprints for the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the company struggled to ready a first-of-its-kind oil spill containment barge that it pledged would be on hand in case of any emergency.
Ultimately, when a component of the Arctic Challenger containment barge was damaged during testing last month, Shell scrapped its plans to complete any of its Arctic wells before ice encroaches on the Chukchi and Beaufort sites this year; instead, the company aims to temporarily plug and abandon the wells after boring about 1,400 feet below the sea floor and return to finish the wells next year.
There were other setbacks. The Discoverer dragged its anchors near Dutch Harbor this summer, an embarrassing episode that provided fodder for environmental critics who argue Shell isn’t able to guarantee it can protect the pristine Arctic ecosystem. Shell also confessed it could not satisfy some of the terms of an air pollution permit governing the drillship Discoverer.
Pete Slaiby, the vice president of Shell Alaska, has stressed the progress on wells this year will lay the foundation for work in 2013.
“This is a great ability for us, to get over there, to knock off what is arguably about half the time that we’ve got in any well,” Slaiby said. And, he said, “it gives us the ability to get up there and prove we can work flawlessly in this environment.”
Shell estimates that about the half the time it will take to drill its Arctic wells to their target depth is consumed by the initial drilling and site preparation it now is performing in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. That initial prep work includes excavating a cellar in the sea bed to hold emergency equipment and keep it out of the way of floating ice as well as drilling and cementing casing in the first 1,400 feet of the Arctic wells.
“This is drilling,” Slaiby said, as he overlooked the rig floor during a visit to Discoverer on Oct. 9. “You take everything you can get.”