Environmentalists: Interior did right thing on Arctic ice

With some Arctic ice now covering Shell’s new well in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, the Obama administration did the right thing in holding firm against the company’s bid to extend offshore drilling there, environmentalists said Friday.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Oceana said the current conditions are proof that the government made the right call in insisting that drilling into potential oil-and-gas-bearing zones stop on Sept. 24. The Interior Department’s Sept. 24 deadline for the Chukchi Sea was designed to enough time for emergency drilling of a relief well before ice starts encroaching again, based on historical trends.

As it turns out, Shell never ended up penetrating hydrocarbon-bearing zones at its Chukchi Sea well or another project in the neighboring Beaufort Sea, because its first-of-its-kind oil spill containment barge wasn’t ready in time to make it to the location.

But earlier this summer, while that containment barge was still under construction, Shell asked the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for an 18-day extension in the Chukchi Sea, based on the company’s prediction of ice-free conditions through mid-November.

Ice was a constant foe during Shell’s brief drilling in the Arctic waters this summer. Initially, thick multi-year sea ice stubbornly clung to Alaska’s shores far longer than usual, preventing Shell’s ships from passing through. Later, the drillship Noble Discoverer had to flee an encroaching ice floe, just one day after the company started boring a hole into its Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea.

Oceana said the slow retreat of ice at the beginning of the season prevented more solar warming of the Chukchi Sea, which may have spurred a rapid freeze-up this fall.

At least one report indicates conditions at Shell’s Burger A well are slushy — rather than covered with a firm layer of ice — which would be consistent with the typical fall “freeze-up,” in the area.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh stressed that “the conditions at our Burger prospect remain safe and workable.”

Susan Murray, Oceana’s Pacific deputy vice president, pressed Salazar to shed more light on Shell’s request and sea ice predictions and to be “cautious and skeptical in the face of public and political pressure from oil companies to drill.”

“It is clear that Shell’s prediction was inaccurate and that the Department of Interior was correct not to allow the company to extend its drilling season,” Murray said in the letter to Salazar. “Now that the drilling season has come to a close, Shell’s request and the ongoing debate around it can be used to inform decisions for future years.”

Shell just stopped drilling its two exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, having gotten about 1,500 feet down before sealing up the wells. Company officials anticipate returning to the region to finish those two wells — and work on several others — as soon as allowed next year.

Shell’s op de Weegh noted the company’s broad ice-monitoring operations.

“By relying on a combination of satellite images, radar and on-site reconnaissance, we have one of the most comprehensive pictures of Arctic sea ice movement in the world at this time,” she said. “Our adaptive management approach dictates that we use that data and be prepared to react immediately to changing conditions — always deferring to caution. That was evidenced by our methodical disconnect from the Burger well this summer.”