Federal regulators on Thursday gave Royal Dutch Shell the green light to move forward with preliminary well work in the Beaufort Sea off northeast Alaska as soon as the subsistence whaling season ends.
The company is also working to obtain support from Inupiat Eskimo whalers that could allow Shell to move its drill rig over the Sivalluq prospect in the Beaufort, 20 miles north of Point Thomson off Alaska's northeast coast, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.
In an accord with Inupiat Eskimo whalers, Shell and other oil companies have agreed to keep drill ships away from prospects during the subsistence whaling season in the villages of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik. The deal stemmed from fear that noise from ships and anchor lines would disturb migrating bowhead whales and push them farther from shore, making hunting more dangerous or impossible.
Nuiqsut's season recently ended after whalers from that village landed their limit of four whales. But the village of Kaktovik, which has landed one whale this fall, can still use one more strike -- a penetration with a whaling weapon -- to get another whale.
Kulluk rig enroute
As for Shell, the company is sailing its slow-moving Kulluk drill rig toward the Beaufort prospect. The conical rig is about 12 hours away, Smith said Thursday morning.
"We are in discussion with AEWC (Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission) about work we can do before whaling is over," Smith said. "We will still seek final support from AEWC before we begin drilling."
An AEWC official could not immediately be reached early Thursday.
Shell recently said it won't drill into hydrocarbon-bearing zones in its Arctic offshore prospects this year. The company plans have been hampered by lingering sea ice that has now moved well off Alaska's coasts, and because of delays largely associated with the failure to overhaul and test a unique barge system designed to capture spilled oil. The Arctic Challenger barge and the system has undergone months of work in Bellingham, Wash.
As for the announcement by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Thursday, Smith called it "another major milestone. It clears the way for the Kulluk to begin drilling in offshore Alaska in the days to come," he said.
The work will coincide with Shell's preliminary well construction in the Chukchi Sea 70 miles northwest of Alaska. That's expected to give the company a headstart on drilling into hydrocarbon-bearing zones next year, in an effort to prove up the commercial potential of the prospects.
Beaufort available through October
In a press release, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said it granted Shell permission in the Beaufort that includes limited drilling in "non-oil-bearing zones."
Shell can work in the Beaufort until the end of October. The agency's approval allows the company this summer to "create a mudline cellar, a safety feature that ensures that the blowout preventer is adequately protected below the level of the seafloor. Shell is also authorized to drill and set the first two strings of casing into shallow non-oil-bearing zones."
Shell cannot drill into oil-bearing zones until "its containment system has been fully tested by BSEE, certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, and (is on location) in the Arctic before any drilling into oil-bearing zones can occur, the press release said.
Shell has other safety mechanisms on hand for its early well work, however. That includes traditional drilling mud that can be poured in a leaking well and an enhanced blowout preventer with redundant, double-blind shear rams meant to seal off a spill. A capping stack could also be employed to seal a well if for some reason those two options failed.
Inspectors with the federal bureau will be on the Kulluk drilling vessel full-time during its operation in the Beaufort, as the agency is doing at Shell's Chukchi site, the agency's press release said.
Federal Arctic offshore waters have not been explored for oil in two decades.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com