Shell Oil Begins Drilling Off The Alaskan Coast
Shell paid $2.8 billion for petroleum leases from the government four years ago but has been blocked from drillling by environmental lawsuits. Federal officials estimate the Chukchi and nearby Beaufort seas contain 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a sizeable portion of the 90 million barrels of oil which are estimated to lie under the Arctic Sea floor.
The Department of the Interior announced at the end of August that Shell would be permitted to begin prepartory drilling despite the fact that the company's spill response barge remains to be certified and is currently off the coast of Washington state. From AP:
Drilling is bitterly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a spill in ice-choked water. They say a spill of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico would be catastrophic in a region hammered by climate warming and home to endangered or threatened marine mammals such as bowhead whales, polar bears and walruses.
Shell officials say there's little chance of that happening. They are drilling in about 130 feet (390 meters) deep, versus 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) at the site of the Gulf spill, and wellhead pressure is expected to be far less. Shell also claims its support vessels could quickly choke off and respond to a spill.
Sunday's drilling was the first step in what is planned to be a 1,300 foot deep well but the company will not be allowed to drill deeper into hydrocarbon deposits until the spill-containment barge is present. The prepratory drilling will help jump start construction in order to be ready for the 2013 drilling season. Shell has spent the past six years and $4.5 billion to develop America’s first offshore oil production in the Arctic.
From the Los Angeles Times:
The work that began in the Arctic dawn is the first exploratory drilling in the Arctic since the early 1990s — when far less regulatory scrutiny was placed on the delicate ecosystem of the Far North. The project marks an important milestone for Alaska, where oil production has been declining steadily from the aging oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk on the North Slope.
Safety bureau inspectors will monitor operations on the drillship, named Nobel Discoverer, around the clock to ensure the strictest compliance. But environmentalists have claimed regulators have been too accomodating toward the oilcompany. From the Houston Chronicle:
The Discoverer drillship dragged its anchor in Dutch Harbor earlier this year. Deadlines for the completion of the Challenger have long since come and gone. And late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency gave Shell permission to operate the Discoverer in the Arctic, even though the company had conceded it could not meet previously permitted air pollution limits.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar assured reporters last week the drilling was being conducted "under the closest oversight and most rigorous safety standards ever."
Another Shell drillship, the Kulluk, is waiting for the end of the whaling season before it begins drilling in the Beaufort Sea.
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