Drifting sea ice halts Shell's Arctic drilling

Dan Joling | Associated Press

Royal Dutch Shell halted drilling in the Chukchi Sea on Monday -- one day after it began -- because of sea ice moving toward the company's drill ship off Alaska.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said drilling was stopped as a precautionary measure in accordance with its ice management plan.

Environmental groups say the complication illustrates the dangers of working in the Arctic. The Wilderness Society said Shell, faced with a shortened drilling season, was trying to mark its space in the Arctic whether or not it was ready to drill.

The ice pack measures about 30 miles by 12 miles. When it moves on, the Noble Discoverer will reconnect to anchors set in the sea floor and resume drilling, Shell says. That could take two days or longer.

"It's significant pack of ice," Smith said. "It's not one solid sheet but there are some pieces of the ice that are more remarkable than others. In one point, we estimate the thickest part of the ice to be about 25 meters." That's about 80 feet.

When Shell first began tracking the ice, it was about 105 miles from the Burger prospect, Smith said.

"The winds suddenly shifted and as far as we could determine, the ice could potentially impact our operations at that point," he said. The ice came within roughly 15 miles of the prospect, he said. It is moving at about .5 knots, or one-half a nautical mile per hour, he said. Shell is tracking the ice through satellite and radar imagery, and on-site reconnaissance.

The company's Burger Prospect is 70 miles off the northwest coast of Alaska.

Drilling began at 4:30 a.m. Sunday.

The Noble Discoverer drilling ship was disconnected from its eight anchors methodically, not through the acoustic quick release method that would be used if it had to get out of the way fast, Smith said. The drill bit was pulled up from the pilot, or test, hole being worked on, and Shell expects to be able to re-enter the well in the same spot. But it might have to start anew, Smith said.

Meanwhile critics of Shell's operation say the moving ice pack should serve as a warning.

"What more will it take for Shell to realize that the Arctic doesn't want them there? It's like a bad horror movie but with a very real tragedy at its core," Dan Howells, deputy campaign director for Greenpeace, said in a written statement.

"Clearly, sea ice is a problem even now, during summer," said Lois Epstein, an Alaska engineer who serves as Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society. The fragile Arctic marine and coastal environments are at risk because of the push to drill, she said in a statement.

Shell says its decision to move off its well was prudent.

"The actions we took today underscore the technology and expertise required to work safely in the Arctic," Smith said in an emailed response. "Not only do we employ the best ice-tracking technology in the world, we use that data to determine when it's necessary to temporarily relocate."

The oil giant received federal permission last month to begin preliminary work on an exploratory well. The company is authorized to drill a pilot hole and do other preliminary well construction, but not to penetrate any oil reservoir until its oil spill containment barge is on the scene. Sea trials for the Arctic Challenger barge began Monday.

Shell is supposed to complete drilling into oil reservoirs by Sept. 24 but has asked to extend its season.

Daily News reporter Lisa Demer and Associated Press reporter Dan Joling contributed to this story. Lisa Demer can be reached at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

Daily News staff and wire report