Shell Gets Final Nod of Approval

Polar Pioneer

Published Aug 17, 2015 5:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Brian Salerno has approved Shell’s request to drill into potential oil-bearing zones in the Chukchi Sea.

Permission has been given for the deep drilling at one of the wells at the Burger Prospect, Burger J, and the company remains limited to the top section of the Burger V well.

Shell was required to wait until a well capping stack was available and deployable within 24 hours in case of a loss of well control. The stack is staged on the vessel M/V Fennica which has now returned to the site after undergoing repairs after grounding on a reef in the area.

Shell broke ground on its first exploration well on July 30, and has been given permission to continue drilling until the season ends on September 28.  This is the final permit that Shell required for its drilling campaign this summer.

“Activities conducted offshore Alaska are being held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards,” said Salerno. “We will continue to monitor their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship.”

Shell is still prohibited from simultaneous drilling at Burger J and V. The company is required to maintain a minimum spacing of 15 miles between active drill rigs during exploration activities to avoid significant effects on walruses in the region.

Under the terms set by BSEE, Shell is also required to have trained wildlife observers on all drilling units and support vessels to minimize impacts to protected species.  Shell must stay within explicitly outlined vessel operating speeds and report daily regarding all vessel transits.

To ensure compliance with this and other conditions, BSEE safety inspectors have been present on the drilling units Noble Discoverer and Transocean Polar Pioneer 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide continuous oversight and monitoring of all approved activities.  The inspectors are authorized to take immediate action to ensure compliance and safety, including cessation of all drilling activities, if necessary. 

The drilling plan includes the precautions:

•    A shortened drilling season to allow time for open-water emergency response and relief rig operations late in the drilling season before projected ice encroachment;
•    Capping stack must be pre-staged and available for use within 24 hours;
•    A tested subsea containment system must be deployable within eight days;
•    The capability to drill a same season relief well;
•    A robust suite of measures to avoid and minimize adverse impacts to marine mammals and their habitat, impacts to Native subsistence activities, and other environmental impacts; and
•    Drilling units and their supporting vessels must depart the Chukchi Sea at the conclusion of each exploration drilling season.

NOIA Praises Drilling Approval 

U.S. industry body NOIA President Randall Luthi has issued a statement saying, “Secretary Jewell and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement are to be commended for the logical decision allowing Shell to safely proceed with exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea.  Other nations are pursuing their offshore Arctic oil and natural gas programs, and as Chair of the Arctic Council, the U.S. should be leading the way. 

“Shell has stationed safety and support equipment on site and has done everything asked and more, with the approval of federal regulators, to set up for this short drilling season, with no guarantee of success. 

“Many agree that there is huge potential for oil and natural gas in the Arctic, but the only way to prove such resources exist is to actually explore.  It is time to move forward so that Alaskans can benefit from increased economic and energy development off their shores, and the U.S. can reap the rewards of increased energy security.”

Friends of the Earth Disappointed

Friends of the Earth Climate Campaigner Marissa Knodel issued the following response:

“Today’s decision makes it final: President Obama is willing to allow the pristine Chukchi Sea to become an energy sacrifice zone and worsen climate disruption. When President Obama announced his Clean Power Plan last week, he committed the U.S. to leading the world in addressing climate change, but giving Shell the green light to exploit the Arctic Ocean for profit completely contradicts that commitment. 

“President Obama should know better. Shell has no business in our Arctic Ocean, and he will bear responsibility for the damage that Shell wreaks there.

“When President Obama visits the Arctic this month, he must face the communities he is sacrificing to Shell’s profits. As the brave climbers and kayaktivists that blocked the Fennica demonstrated, the fight to protect the Arctic Ocean is not over until President Obama hears the message, loud and clear: the only path to a safe climate future is to leave Arctic Ocean oil and gas in the ground.”