Shell gets conditional approval for US Arctic drilling plan

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on May 11 conditionally approved Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.’s revised multiyear exploration plan (EP) that proposes the drilling of as many as six wells on the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell will conduct its drilling in 140 ft of water about 70 miles northwest of the Alaskan village of Wainwright using the M/V Noble Discoverer drillship and Transocean Ltd.’s Polar Pioneer semisubmersible drilling unit, with each vessel providing relief-well capability for the other. The two drilling rigs and their supporting vessels will depart the Chukchi Sea at the conclusion of each exploration drilling season.

During their journey toward their northerly destination over the past couple of weeks, the rigs have been subject to protests and pushback from environmentalists, eventually resulting in the city of Seattle’s ruling that an additional permit will be needed to temporarily house the two rigs in its port (OGJ Online, May 6, 2015). Shell is set to meet with port officials on May 12 to discuss the issue.

Among the conditions of approval from BOEM is the requirement that Shell obtain all necessary permits from other state and federal agencies, including permits to drill from the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and appropriate authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Another condition of approval prevents Shell from commencing drilling until all biological opinions under the Endangered Species Act have been issued and requires all drilling under the plan comply with the terms and conditions included in those biological opinions.

“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social, and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, BOEM director. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

The plan describes all exploration planned by the operator, including the timing of these activities, information concerning drilling vessels, the location of each planned well, and actions to be taken to meet important safety and environmental standards and to protect workers, resources, wildlife, and access to subsistence use areas. In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the review of the plan included the preparation of an environmental assessment and a subsequent finding of no significant impact.

The US Department of the Interior in February released proposed Arctic standards that are open to public comment until May 27 (OGJ Online, Feb. 20, 2015). The proposed regulations include many required measures that have been adopted previously as conditions on Shell’s Arctic drilling and that BOEM also adopted in its approval of the revised plan. Those standards build upon existing Arctic-specific standards as well as experience with previous drilling offshore Alaska.

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