Sea ice could keep Shell away from the Arctic until mid July

WASHINGTON — Thick sea ice could clog the site of Shell’s planned oil wells in the Arctic Ocean until late July, potentially shaving a week off the company’s already narrow window for exploratory drilling in the region.

Shell Oil Co. is still waiting for four federal authorizations to launch any of the work, including drilling permits for two wells in its Burger prospect about 70 miles northwest of the Alaska coastline. With all approvals in hand, the company could begin moving drilling rigs and other vessels through the Bering Strait and toward the Chukchi Sea as early as July 1 and begin boring a well as soon as July 15.

But the company also depends on open waters — both to make its way northward and within 30 miles of its drill sites.

“Our in-house experts are forecasting the third week in July will present the first opportunity to begin drilling operations over our Burger prospects,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. “Assuming final permits are in hand, that would place Shell assets into the Bering Strait sometime after the first week in July.”

If Shell’s prediction holds, it would represent a far earlier opening than in recent years. Over the past 11 years, on average, the waters over Shell’s Burger prospect have remained covered with floating ice until Aug. 12. The ice appears to be melting sooner this year.

Conditions in the Arctic Ocean could change rapidly over the next few weeks — affected not just by the temperature of the air and water but also the direction of winds that can compact floating ice into a smaller area or push more ice down from the north.

Chris Krenz, a senior scientist and Arctic campaign manager with Oceana, said that several factors suggest sea ice in the Chukchi Sea will melt more quickly this year.

“Sea surface temperatures in the ice-free areas of the Chukchi Sea are very warm — well above average and, in some cases 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than one would expect,” Krenz said. “So there’s a lot of heat in the water already.”

Air temperatures in the region also are well above average.

The Obama administration is requiring Shell to halt any drilling by Sept. 28, if it has two rigs in the Chukchi Sea — a deadline that leaves time for the company to bore a relief well in case of an emergency before ice is expected to encroach on the area. The cutoff date shifts four days sooner, to Sept. 24, if one of Shell’s rigs is further away.

Shell has already moved one of its contracted drilling rigs — the Transocean Polar Pioneer — to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to wait for an opening.

The Polar Pioneer arrived there early Saturday morning, 12 days after it left the Port of Seattle.

Read more: Shell drilling rig leaves Seattle for Alaska waters

A second rig, the Noble Discoverer, is poised to soon follow suit, following a brief calibration exercise Monday morning. Activists in kayaks watched as the Discoverer left its mooring at the Port of Everett and swung a wide circle during the 40-minute maneuver.

A Coast Guard spokesman confirmed the agency knew the exercise was scheduled to be conducted Monday and that the drillship was not slated to depart right after.

The flurry of activity comes even though Shell lacks essential federal approvals for its planned drilling. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is reviewing two of Shell’s drilling permit applications.

Meanwhile, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, is weighing Shell’s request for “letters of authorization” that would allow its planned activities to disturb walruses and other animals.

Environmentalists have warned the Interior Department that any letters of authorization for Shell’s Burger prospect would run afoul of a 2013 regulation requiring a 15-mile buffer for simultaneous drilling operations. Shell’s planned wells are about nine miles apart.

SHOW MORE