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Shell details plans for drilling in Chukchi Sea off Alaska

Yereth RosenAlaska Dispatch News
Shell's drill ship Noble Discoverer. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Shell plans to drill five wells over several years at its Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea, according to a revised exploration plan filed Nov. 6 and posted online by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. 

Under the plan, Shell would use the leased Noble Discoverer drill ship to finish the well it started in 2012 and drilled to 1,505 feet. Five additional Burger wells also would be drilled.

“It is anticipated that this work will take place over a number of drilling seasons,” the 423-page modified plan says.

The document describes several changes Shell seeks to make to the exploration plan BOEM approved for the 2012 season, and outlines its efforts to move past that year’s trouble-plagued operations. The highlights:

• A leased drill ship, the Polar Pioneer, would substitute for the Kulluk -- the conical, Shell-owned ship damaged in the now-notorious New Year’s Eve grounding -- as the backup drill rig that would be used in a cleanup in the event of a well blowout. 
• Another helicopter would be added to Shell’s air fleet to carry out shift changes at the offshore rig, according to the new plan.
• A worker camp at Barrow would be expanded to 200 people from the 75-person size approved in the earlier plan.
• Mudline cellars at the wells would be expanded, and there would be allowances for more fluids to be released during blowout-prevention tests.

An important change for Shell, described in the plan, is a shift in oversight of air emissions. Under legislation pushed through Congress in late 2011 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, BOEM -- not the Environmental Protection Agency -- will regulate air emissions produced by the Discoverer and its support ships. 

Shell has had difficulty with its EPA-issued air-quality permit for the Discoverer. At the end of 2010, the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board overturned the initial permit, forcing the EPA to rewrite the document to update standards for nitrogen oxides and other pollutants. And just before drilling commenced in 2012, Shell notified EPA that it could not meet the requirements of its new permit, and EPA granted modifications that temporarily loosened standards -- but only for that drill season.

Nonetheless, the Discoverer and its support vessels violated those rules, the EPA said, prompting fines of $710,000 for Clean Air Act violations. Separate air-quality violations on the Kulluk resulted in $390,000 in Clean Air Act fines. 

Though it posted the plan as submitted by Shell, BOEM said it has not yet determined that the company filed all the information required to move to the next step in the approval process. Staff members “are currently assessing the revised EP (environmental plan) filed by Shell to determine whether it contains all required elements to initiate a more comprehensive review,” the agency said on its website. That assessment is expected to be finished by Nov. 29, BOEM said.

At the same time, Shell has opted to delay further drilling its Beaufort Sea leases. A single well at the Sivulliq prospect was partially drilled in 2012 by the Kulluk before that ship grounded while being towed out of Alaska nearly a year ago.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com 

Correction:  BOEM's assessment of Shell's revised environmental plan is due to be finished Nov. 29, not Nov. 27.