Salazar: Shell responsible for Arctic drilling delays

Neither thick Arctic ice nor government red tape is holding back Shell’s plans to search for oil in waters north of Alaska this summer, a top Obama administration official said Monday.

Instead, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters, the delays are Shell’s own making.

A key oil spill containment system and the barge carrying it have not cleared a required Coast Guard inspection or been tested in front of federal drilling safety regulators. Instead, the 36-year-old Arctic Challenger barge has been docked and undergoing renovations in Bellingham, Wash.

“The cause for any delay here is Shell’s construction of its vessel,” Salazar said. “They have not been able to get it done. If they had got it done, they may already be up there today, because the waters in the Chukchi around the so-called Burger find are already open.”

“It’s not a matter of ice, it’s a matter of whether Shell has the mechanical capability to comply with the exploration (plan) that had been approved,” Salazar added.

Shell Oil Co. has spent nearly $5 billion and seven years preparing to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It awaits just a few government approvals — including drilling permits from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — before it can launch the work.

But those permits are contingent on Shell satisfying the terms of its Interior Department-approved plan for responding to any oil spill in Arctic waters, which includes a system for capping and containing a runaway underwater well.

Salazar left open the possibility that Shell could begin some prep work at its Arctic drilling sites — including excavation of the sea floor to accommodate emergency equipment that would guard the wellhead — even without the containment system. But Shell has not proposed such an alternative, Salazar said.

Salazar previously told reporters he anticipated Shell would win its well drilling permits, and he emphasized Monday that key decisions would come in the next several weeks.

But even if Shell wins every necessary government approval, the company’s window for drilling is short. Shell must stop drilling in hydrocarbon-bearing zones by Sept. 24 in the Chukchi Sea and Oct. 31 in the Beaufort Sea.

Shell officials now say just two out of 10 planned wells are likely to be completed this year. And Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby has conceded that even those two might be a challenge under the abbreviated schedule.