Arctic Drilling: Shell Nixes Exploratory Chukchi Sea Wells Till 2013 Season

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell announced it would not drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea this year, after a containment dome became damaged during testing off Washington State.

Royal Dutch Shell has suspended exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska for the current season, though it will continue to start wells by digging as many “top holes” as it has time for before the season ends later in September.

“Over the last several days, Shell has successfully completed a series of tests of the first-ever Arctic containment system,” the oil giant announced on September 17. “However, during a final test, the containment dome aboard the Arctic Challenger barge was damaged. It is clear that some days will be required to repair and fully assess dome readiness. We are disappointed that the dome has not yet met our stringent acceptance standards; but, as we have said all along, we will not conduct any operation until we are satisfied that we are fully prepared to do it safely.”

Shell had already suspended operations temporarily, one day after starting its drilling, because a 300-square-mile ice floe was drifting too close to the drill site.

The containment system, which would be in place in the event of an oil spill, was being tested in Bellingham, Washington, pending its deployment to the Chukchi Sea. But without a working containment system, the company won’t receive final approvals from the U.S. Coast Guard for drilling full-fledged test wells.

“Instead, we will begin as many wells, known as ‘top holes,’ as time remaining in this season allows. The top portion of the wells drilled in the days and weeks ahead will be safely capped and temporarily abandoned this year, in accordance with regulatory requirements,” Shell’s statement said. “We look forward to the final receipt of our drilling permits for the multi-year exploration program upon the successful testing and deployment of the Arctic Containment System.”

The drilling season in the Chukchi Sea ends on September 24, though Shell has requested a two-week extension from the U.S. government before the sea ice sets in. The Noble Discoverer will move back into position and start the top part of the well “in the days ahead,” Shell’s statement said, once the ice floe that was potentially threatening the ship has passed by.

Plans to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea are still in place, Shell said, pending the “anticipated receipt” of a top-hole drilling permit and the end of the fall whale hunt.

Drilling plans face much opposition from Native Alaskans and environmentalists who say that the unpredictability of Arctic seas in particular and the lack of knowledge of how to handle an oil spill in that environment, combined with the delicate habitat for many key species, make drilling there not worth the risk. The Coast Guard itself seems to have questioned the Noble Explorer's seaworthiness in stormy weather, the Washington Post reported. Trust concerns were further underscored when the ship came undone from its moorings off the Aleutian Island and drifted, coming within 100 yards of the shore, the newspaper said.