Shell resumes drilling in Alaska's Arctic waters for first time since 2012

Royal Dutch Shell began drilling an exploratory well in Alaska's offshore waters Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the company said.

At about 5 p.m. Alaska time, the Transocean Polar Pioneer began drilling at the Anglo-Dutch oil company's Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea, according to Anchorage-based spokeswoman Megan Baldino.

The move came on the same day as Shell announced deep job cuts and scaled back capital investment to its global operations -- and as protesters rappelled from an Oregon bridge in efforts to block the Fennica, a Shell icebreaker, from returning to the Arctic.

The Transocean Polar Pioneer is one of the two rigs Shell contracted to do its Chukchi work, Baldino said. Under conditions of Shell's well-drilling permit and other authorizations from regulators, the company is allowed to penetrate the upper, non-hydrocarbon-bearing zone without the Fennica present, she noted.

The Polar Pioneer is expected "in the days ahead" to drill the top portion of a well called Burger J, one of six Burger prospect well sites identified in Shell's exploration plan, Baldino wrote in an email.

The Fennica, with its oil-containment equipment, is expected to arrive at the site in time to allow for deeper drilling, she said.

"At this time, the Fennica should be in the Chukchi when it is required for drilling into hydrocarbon bearing zones," she said.

Shell might be able to drill at two well sites this year, Baldino said.

"With timely operational performance on the Polar Pioneer at Burger J, we may be able to complete some well operations at Burger V before the end of the operating season," she said. Burger V is another of the six identified well sites, and Shell has been issued a permit allowing it to drill there.

Mishaps, permitting failures and near-disasters plagued Shell throughout the 2012 drill season, the company's first in offshore Alaska Arctic waters.

While Shell announced Thursday that it would reduce its workforce by some 6,500 employees and cut capital investment by $7 billion, CEO Ben van Beurden told investors the company remains committed to its plans in Alaska's Arctic offshore waters, calling them a "long-term play."

Meanwhile, the ice-breaking ship Fennica, which was damaged after striking an unknown object near Dutch Harbor earlier this month, left port in Oregon, where it was being repaired, after it was turned around by protestors on its first attempt.

An Anchorage-based federal court judge found the environmental group Greenpeace USA in contempt of court, and ordered fines of $2,500 for each hour the protestors blocked the ship.

Protesters in kayaks, and dangling from a bridge in the Fennica's path were eventually removed and the ship departed for Arctic waters.

"We have consistently stated that we respect the right of individuals to protest so long as they do so safely and within the boundaries of the law," Baldino said. "The staging of protesters in Portland was not safe nor was it lawful. Furthermore, Greenpeace demonstrated a complete lack of regard for the authority of a U.S. Federal Court. We are pleased with today's court ruling that holds Greenpeace in contempt and prescribes fines for further non-compliance."

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.