WASHINGTON -- Federal inspectors will be stationed around the clock on rigs that Shell plans to use in drilling up to five wells in Arctic waters near Alaska this summer, a top U.S. regulator promised Thursday.
Director James Watson of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said having the offshore drilling inspectors on the Kulluk and Discoverer rigs will ensure a close watch on Shell's proposed oil exploration, should it win final government approval.
"BSEE will diligently review and monitor Shell's proposed activities at each stage to ensure they remain compliant with federal regulations and are performed in a safe manner," Watson told reporters on a conference call.
It is unusual for federal drilling regulators to stay on a drilling rig for weeks at a time. In the Gulf of Mexico, inspectors usually fly in by helicopter for relatively brief visits.
But Watson noted that inspectors stayed on drilling rigs during the last round of Arctic exploration in the 1980s and 1990s, when Shell and others drilled about 30 wells on the outer continental shelf of Alaska.
After a seven-year quest, Shell is closer than ever to launching its new round of drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The company is waiting for just one final set of permits from the safety bureau before it can begin the work as soon as next month.
Those permits are contingent on Shell convincing regulators that its emergency capping and containment system will stop the flow of oil from a subsea well in the event of a blowout.
A day after touring one of Shell's drillships in Seattle, Watson went to Portland, Ore., Thursday for a close-up look at the capping stack Shell plans to station between its two Arctic drilling operations.
In the coming weeks, it will undergo a test of its basic functions called a stump test, followed by a practice deployment in Pacific Northwest waters.
The capping stack is designed to provide a metal-to-metal connection with a compromised blowout preventer. Once in place, the stack could be used either to close in the well or as a conduit for delivering flowing oil and gas to a containment barge on the surface.
Gulf of Mexico spill
After the 2010 Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the government mandated the use of such backup equipment during deep-water drilling.
In the upcoming stump test, inspectors will verify that valves and cylinders on the capping stack can function as expected while it is sitting on shore. During the deployment drill, the capping stack will be lowered into the water.
No similar drills are planned for Arctic waters near Shell's proposed drilling.
Watson said, however, that Shell's emergency containment system will be deployed to the depth it would be needed in an emergency in the relatively shallow Beaufort and Chukchi sea drilling sites.
Environmentalists who oppose Shell's planned drilling say there is no guarantee the capping system would work correctly in remote and choppy Arctic waters.
They also question Shell's ability to remove spilled oil from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, particularly if an emergency occurred late in the drilling season, and ice started encroaching.
Environmentalists argue that existing technology for removing oil out of even calm, warm seas can only sop up a small percentage of the crude that enters those waters, and that the equipment's success rate could be far worse in the Arctic. Government auditors warned in a March report that icy conditions, dark days and a lack of infrastructure could hinder efforts to clean up any spill in the region, even if a damaged well were capped swiftly.
But Interior Department regulators approved Shell's plan for responding to oil spills in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas earlier this year.
The Obama administration also previously signed off on Shell's broad drilling blueprints for the region, and the Environmental Protection Agency has issued clean air permits for the flotilla of vessels that will be involved in Shell's operations.
Shell spent $2.2 billion buying drilling rights in the region beginning in 2005 and has since invested billions more trying to overcome regulatory hurdles.
By Jennifer A. Dlouhy