Sunday, July 26, 2015

Approved to start; BSEE issues permits to Shell for top hole sections of Chukchi Sea wells

Alaska Contract Staffing
Alan Bailey
Petroleum News

On July 22 the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement issued permits allowing Shell to drill the top hole sections of two wells in the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea. Shell now has all of the permits that it needs to start drilling.

However, BSEE is prohibiting Shell from drilling into hydrocarbon bearing zones until the company has its capping stack staged, available for deployment within 24 hours if needed. The capping stack, a device that would be placed onto a well head to seal the well should the well’s blowout preventer fail during a well loss-of-control incident, is positioned on the icebreaker M/V Fennica.

The Fennica has had to divert to Portland, Oregon, for a repair to a gash in its hull after hitting an uncharted underwater obstruction near Dutch Harbor. Shell has said that it anticipates the vessel being repaired and transitioned to the Chukchi Sea with the capping stack before drilling operations reach the depths where hydrocarbons may be found.

“Without question, activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards,” said BSEE Director Brian Salerno. “Without the required well control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones. As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship.”

BSEE says that agency safety inspectors will be present on Shell’s drilling units Noble Discoverer and Polar Pioneer to provide continuous oversight of all approved activities.

No simultaneous drilling

The BSEE drilling permits prohibit simultaneous drilling operations at both of Shell’s planned drilling sites. This limitation arises from a stipulation within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s letter of authorization, allowing the minor, unintended disturbance of walruses and polar bears during Shell’s operations. The stipulation requires simultaneous exploration activities to be spaced at least 15 miles from each other - Shell’s well locations are less than 15 miles apart. If Shell opts to start drilling two wells the company must plug and abandon the top section of the first well before commencing the drilling of the second well, BSEE says.

Drilling vessels dispatched

Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino has told Petroleum News that the two drilling vessels under contract for the Chukchi Sea drilling have departed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands for the Chukchi Sea. “The Noble Discoverer left last night around 6:30 and the Transocean Polar Pioneer followed at approximately 1:00 p.m. this afternoon,” Baldino said in a July 17 email.

The two drilling units, with assistance from support vessels, will connect to anchors that Shell has recently placed over the drilling prospect in the Chukchi Sea, Baldino said. The Burger prospect lies about 70 miles northwest of the Chukchi coastal village of Wainwright. The sea depth at Burger is about 140 feet according to BSEE.

Baldino told Petroleum News in a July 22 email that Shell plans to begin drilling at the Burger J prospect using the Polar Pioneer once the area is substantially clear of sea ice.

“The company will comply with all permits,” Baldino said.

BSEE inspection

Between July 7 and July 12, prior to the departure of the Noble Discoverer and the Polar Pioneer from Dutch Harbor, BSEE conducted inspections of the two drilling units, assessing the overall readiness of the units for the Chukchi Sea drilling and testing key safety devices, BSEE said July 16. The inspectors also verified oil lease stipulations, environmental mitigation measures, air quality equipment and permit requirements for the discharge of waste, BSEE said. BSEE Alaska Region Director Mark Fesmire and BSEE personnel re-inspected Shell’s capping stack on board the M/V Fennica, to verify that the capping stack had not been damaged during the incident in which the Fennica’s hull had been breached, BSEE said.

Reactions to the permitting

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, expressed her satisfaction with the issue of the BSEE drilling permits.

“Today’s approval by the Department of Interior of the permits Shell needs to resume drilling in the Chukchi Sea is good news for Alaska and our country,” Murkowski said in a July 22 press release. “However, it is not the final regulatory hurdle Shell faces and it is important that the agencies continue to work in good faith and in a timely fashion to complete the remaining regulatory requirements.”

But environmental organizations continue to express their opposition to Shell’s plans.

“Neither Shell nor the oil industry as a whole has learned the lessons of 2010 or 2012,” said Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana. “As its ongoing missteps show, Shell is not prepared to operate safely in the Arctic Ocean where bad weather, darkness and floating ice increase the risks of an accident, and there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil. The government’s approvals for Shell’s drilling fly in the face of common sense.”

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