No “showstoppers” yet for Shell’s Arctic drilling plans

WASHINGTON — Offshore drilling regulators on Tuesday vetted Shell’s specific plans for boring two exploratory oil wells in the Arctic Ocean, while one of the company’s rigs traveled to Alaska and its emergency equipment was deployed in a simulation.

As the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement scrutinizes Shell’s drilling permit applications, regulators are asking the company for more details about its first two planned wells in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska.

As those permit applications are reviewed, “there’s always a back and forth with information,” said bureau director Brian Salerno, on the sidelines of a House hearing on Arctic drilling.

Salerno said the agency had just received additional details from Shell on one permit application and is waiting for more information on the second. He declined to give a specific time frame for any final decision on the permits.

“But there’s nothing to indicate any showstoppers at this point,” Salerno said.

The two drilling permits — for the “J” and “V” wells at Shell’s Burger prospect — are among the last remaining federal authorizations the company needs to launch its planned drilling next month.

The company on Monday won a critical “incidental harassment authorization” from the Commerce Department that allows noise from air guns, dynamic positioning systems and ice management operations to disturb whales, seals and other marine mammals that live in the region or migrate through it.

Read more: Shell nabs critical animal disturbance permit for Arctic drilling venture

A separate animal disturbance authorization is required from the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service.

But most other regulatory hurdles have been cleared, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision earlier this year to green light Shell’s broad exploratory plan for the Chukchi Sea. That approval was required before BSEE could begin considering individual drilling permits.

Shell’s emergency equipment for capping and containing a blown-out well in shallow Arctic waters also has already been certified.

But officials with the Coast Guard and the Interior Department’s safety bureau were giving the system a look on Tuesday, as Shell employees and contractors deployed a critical component of Shell’s Arctic containment system in waters near Everett, Wash.

The system, slated to be located in Kotzebue Sound during Shell’s planned drilling, includes a 20-foot-tall steel containment dome meant to fit over a damaged well and an array of valves known as a capping stack designed to sit atop a well and choke off flowing oil and gas.

The capping stack was deployed Tuesday, following a similar exercise with the containment dome in March.

Read more: Shell conducts drills with Arctic oil spill response system

Although the safety bureau deemed that March exercise successful, proving the dome can be deployed and operated as designed, the agency’s regional director for Alaska outlined some concerns in an April 16 letter to Shell.

Chief among them: The tugboat Corbin Foss, which was anchored near the Arctic Challenger, dragged anchor amid gale-force winds. According to the letter, released in response to a Freedom of Information request from Greenpeace, two small workboats “had to rapidly run out to the Corbin, engage into its side and push it back into position against wind and seas.”

At the time, radio contact also could not be readily established with the tugboat. BSEE regional director Mark Fesmire said that demonstrated “an operational or technical deficiency which must be addressed.”

Salerno said Tuesday’s capping stack deployment exercise was meant to ensure “the crew is familiar with how to physically get it from the deck, . . . deploy it and that they can control it through that process.”

“There is a lot of value in exercising it through this process and making sure (it) is working — not only the stack itself but the handling of it,” Salerno added.

One of Shell’s contracted drilling rigs, meanwhile, was passing near Vancouver Island on the second day of its trek toward Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Read more: Drilling rig leaves Seattle for Alaska waters

It has been moving at a speed of about 4 to 8 knots away from Seattle, where it was stocked with drilling pipe, chemicals, and other supplies for its Arctic venture.

Dutch Harbor, the closest deep-water port to Shell’s Burger prospect, is set to be a waypoint before the company is expected to launch the second leg of its journey to the Chukchi Sea.

A second rig, the drillship Noble Discoverer, is set to begin sailing toward Alaska within weeks.

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