The Los Angeles Times reports that Shell Oil's drilling rig Kulluk is making preparations to leave Seattle for the Arctic Ocean off Alaska to begin exploratory drilling this summer.
So far, Shell has invested $4 billion and expects to start exploratory drilling in July unless regulators or court prevent it. Shell believes it may eventually tap into a supply of up to 500,000 gallons of oil a day. But environmentalists are preparing last-minute legal challenges.
"It is beyond the pale of stupidity that in the face of everything that's happening in the Arctic that we would launch a drilling program," Jim Ayers, former director of the Exxon Valdez Trustees Council, told the Los Angeles Times.
Nonetheless, Shell's vice president for Alaska operations, Pete Slaiby, is optimistic. "At this point, we are planning on drilling this year unless a federal agency or court action determines we will not," he told the Times.
Shell's oil spill plan, approved by the federal government for the Chukchi Sea on Feb. 17, envisions a flotilla of spill-response vessels standing by. The company would have a well-capping stack on scene, the kind that eventually sealed off the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Retired Vice Adm. Roger Rufe, who helped prepare the Coast Guard's review of BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster, described the United States' ability to address a spill in icy conditions is "pretty abysmal."
"I don't think anybody's really proven they can clean up a spill very effectively in the ice," said Rufe, addressing a recent panel on offshore drilling hosted by the Pew Environment Group, according to the Los Angeles Times.