Shell asks feds for go-ahead to drill deeper in Arctic

WASHINGTON — Shell is asking federal regulators for permission to drill deeper into potential oil-bearing rock thousands of feet below the Chukchi Sea.

Although the company has been drilling a well at its Burger Prospect since July 30, Interior Department regulators have limited the company’s work to the top 3,000 feet.

The restriction stems from regulators’ insistence that Shell must have emergency equipment known as a capping stack nearby and ready to be deployed on top of a damaged well within 24 hours of an incident. But for weeks, that capping stack and the icebreaker used to deploy it have been unavailable while a hole in the hull of that vessel was fixed in a Portland, Oregon shipyard.

Newly repaired, the icebreaker MSV Fennica has been traveling toward the Chukchi Sea. It is expected to deploy recorders in Ledyard Bay, Alaska before heading toward Shell’s drilling site, where it it is expected to arrive Tuesday.

Shell filed a request to modify its drilling permit with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Aug. 6.

It is not clear how quickly the agency will review the “application for permit to modify,” but Shell still has plenty of work to do at its Burger J well.

Before it could begin drilling deep below the seabed, Shell was forced to excavate a 20-by-40 foot hole to stash a blowout preventer that can be used as a final defense against uncontrolled surges of oil and gas. The mud-line cellar helps shield the device from floating icebergs.

The company had anticipated spending about nine days working on the mud-line cellar. It completed the mud-line cellar around 10 p.m. local time Sunday — about one day behind schedule but far quicker than the last attempt, in 2012, which took weeks.

Shell has until Sept. 28 to finish the bulk of its drilling. After that deadline, regulators say the company can not conduct exploratory drilling operations below the bottom of the last stretch of casing, or pipe, set in the well.

The company still can do other work up until Oct. 31, including excavating the mud-line cellar on another well known as Burger V that is 9.5 miles away. That would provide a foundation for additional drilling in 2016, when Shell has said it intends to return to the region.