Feds launch 30-day review of Shell’s Arctic drilling plan

Shell Oil Co.’s plans to drill up to six exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea near Alaska advanced today, as federal regulators launched a 30-day review of the company’s Arctic drilling proposal.

In vetting Shell’s exploration plan, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will be conducting an environmental assessment of the proposed project — including an analysis of whether there a significant environmental impact is likely from the work. Later, the ocean energy bureau is tasked with deciding whether to approve the plan, require modifications or reject it wholesale.

If regulators sign off on the plan, it would mark a major hurdle cleared by Shell, which has never before won approval for a Chukchi Sea drilling blueprint. However, the ocean energy bureau separately approved Shell’s exploration plan for the neighboring Beaufort Sea in August.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company will be closely monitoring progress on the shallow-water exploration plan and reiterated the logistical concerns that surround Arctic drilling.

“We do have long lead-times associated with preparing a drilling program for the open water season,” op de Weegh said. “We also await the approval of our Oil Spill Response Contingency Plan, a version of which had previously been approved before we added a capping and containment system for Alaska.”

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, cheered the development as “another step closer to offshore exploration in the Arctic next year.”

Over the next two summers, Shell is proposing to drill up to six wells within the Burger Prospect, which is located about 70 miles off the coast of Alaska in roughly 140 feet of water.

Even if the exploration plan is approved, Shell would still have to win permits from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement before it could drill any wells in the region. Federal regulators also would have to sign off on the company’s revised plan for containing and cleaning up any oil spills.

Tommy Beaudreau, the ocean energy bureau director, told the House Natural Resources Committee today that Shell will have to prove they can “contain any spill or blowout related to their operation . . . before getting a permit to drill.”

“Our regulations set, I believe, a very high bar with respect to spill response,” Beaudreau said, noting the extra challenges in cleaning up crude in remote, slushy Arctic waters.

The public can comment on Shell’s exploration plan in two ways. For 10 days, they can recommend the scope of the BOEM’s environmental assessment of Shell’s Chukchi exploration plan. For 21 days, the public can also submit comments on the exploration plan itself.