This year, Shell’s hopes have been high, but it is under other time pressure. Because of temperatures that drop as low as 56 degrees below zero, the ice-free drilling season is limited to July to October. Usually. The amount of ice fluctuates from year to year and this year is has been abundant.
Shell is also limited at the end of the season, because the offshore drilling regulators at Interior have ordered Shell to stop drilling 38 days before the end of the open water season. That’s how long it would take to drill a relief well if there were a spill at Shell’s well.
This isn’t Shell’s first foray here. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shell and other companies drilled wells in this area of the Chukchi Sea. Lower prices for oil at that time made it uneconomical to pursue. Now, with higher oil prices and technological advances such as 3-D seismic surveys, the company is confident that there is a lot of oil within reach and that it’s worth drilling again. It has overcome opposition from environmental groups and some Alaskan tribes, winning a series of necessary federal approvals for drilling.
Shell officials said they are close to resolving some of remaining regulatory hurdles, such as the fact that the generators running the Discoverer’s drill bit emit more nitrous oxide and ammonia than the EPA permit allows. The ship’s overall emissions would still be under the rig’s permitted limit, according to Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. He said that “the current available technology does not exist to meet that particular standard for these particular generators.”
EPA spokesman David Bloomgren said the agency is working on the issue and remains confident that “we can protect air quality while providing the EPA approvals required for Shell to operate this summer.”
The Coast Guard is still working with Shell to determine whether its oil-recovery barge meets federal standards for a “floating outer continental shelf facility,” according to Coast Guard spokesman Capt. Ronald LaBrec, and is still verifying both its engineering plans and equipment. Smith said Shell is working with the agency to determine “the most appropriate classification” for the vessel and will meet those given requirements.
Rig slipped anchor
The recent drifting of the Noble Discoverer rig did little to reassure drilling foes. The rig was anchored in Dutch Harbor, four to five days traveling time from the Chukchi Sea drill site, when it slipped its anchor and ended up extremely close to shore. The local television station KUCB captured the incident in photographs and posted on its Facebook page, noting that despite rain and 35-knot winds, more than a dozen residents turned out to watch Shell’s contract tugboat Lauren Foss “straining to pull the rig back out to sea.”
Smith said the anchor used in Dutch Harbor had nothing to do with the much bigger, more elaborate eight-anchor mooring system that would be used at the well site, and did not reflect on the company’s ability to drill safely. Divers examined the hull of the rig and on Tuesday proclaimed there was no damage or evidence of hitting shore, a Shell spokesman said.
But opponents of Shell’s drilling plan seized on the incident as further evidence that the Obama administration should block drilling. Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel of the advocacy group Oceana, said, “Alaskan waters are unforgiving and unpredictable, so we are glad that it appears everyone is safe. Shell’s plans and recent actions show that the company is not prepared to drill in the Arctic Ocean, and our government is not holding the company accountable.”
While offshore exploration enjoys significant support in Alaska, some Inuits there worry it will imperil the marine animals they depend on for subsistence. “Tell Obama not to put oil rigs out there, because we eat from the ocean,” said Marie Casados, who monitors the communications of ships traveling in the Chukchi Sea for the Tikigaq Corp. in Point Hope, which lies on the Chukchi Sea.
Reggie Joule, a former state lawmaker from Kotzebue, said northwestern Alaskans should keep in perspective that holes have already been drilled in the Chukchi and Beaufort.
“We’re looking at whether there’s a big enough find, and if we can bring it to market,” Joule said, but he added if drilling begins in earnest, federal officials will have to decide “if they can allow for the subsistence hunting and allow for these activities to go forward. That’s the $64,000 question.”
Rocky Milligrock, another Point Hope resident, said he has to laugh at the fierce political debate over drilling in light of the Arctic’s unpredictable conditions. “If Mother Nature wants it to go forward, it will,” he said. “If not, it won’t.”
Mufson reported from Washington.