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Shell needs to give more assurances about drilling safeguards off Alaska, agency says

Yereth Rosen
Federal regulators are asking Shell to ensure that all problems surrounding the Noble Discoverer drilling rig have been addressed before it allows the company to resume operations in the Chukchi Sea. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Before Shell wins approval for drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Northwestern Alaska this year, the company must prove that the problems afflicting the trouble-plagued Noble Discover drill ship in 2012 have been addressed, federal regulators said this week.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is reviewing Shell’s plans to finish the exploration well it started two years ago and drill up to five more in the potentially oil-rich but remote Chukchi. On Tuesday, the agency sent a request to the company for additional information on what regulators say are safeguards needed for resumed offshore operations.

Shell submitted its revised exploration plan on Nov. 6. The plan focuses on the Chukchi, temporarily shelving plans for exploration drilling in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska, where Shell in 2012 operated the ill-fated Kulluk rig. That rig was seriously damaged while being moved to a shipyard for offseason upgrades, breaking away from its tow lines and going aground on Dec. 31, 2012 during a Gulf of Alaska storm. Damages were so severe that Shell does not intend to put the Kulluk back into service in Alaska.  

But the Discoverer, leased by Shell from Noble Corp., had its own woes, including air quality violations that resulted in a $710,000 fine imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, a small engine fire and numerous safety and environmental deficiencies detected by the U.S. Coast Guard, which temporarily detained the ship in late 2012 at the port of Seward on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

On Nov. 29, BOEM asked Shell to provide additional information about how the 2014 exploration program would differ from the troubled 2012 program. But the agency said this week that questions about the Discoverer remain.

“BOEM is seeking assurance from Shell that not only have the physical deficiencies been resolved, but also if Shell’s management/oversight deficiencies that allowed the physical deficiencies to remain undedicated or unresolved throughout the course of operations have been fixed,” BOEM said.

Shell also needs to provide additional information about the Polar Pioneer, the drill ship leased to replace the Shell-owned Kulluk as the mandatory standby rig available to drill a blowout well, as well as walrus protections planned for Hanna Shoal, an area of shallow water that is important habitat and foraging grounds for the marine mammals, BOEM said. Shell’s Burger prospect, target of the drilling plans, is near the Hanna Shoal.

Despite lingering issues to be resolved before approval of the exploration program is granted, most of the 28 specific questions that BOEM raised in November about Shell’s revised drill plan have been adequately addressed, the agency said in its letter to the company.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com.