Shell postpones drilling in the Arctic Ocean

After numerous setbacks and delays, Shell Oil’s plans to drill as many as five exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean this summer have been postponed until 2013. Shell was scheduled to complete hydrocarbon zone drilling in the Chukchi by Sept. 24, although the company had applied for an extension until Oct. 31 before deciding this week to wait until next year.

The company says it will continue drilling top holes in preparation for 2013, but will “forgo drilling into hydrocarbon zones this year.”

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have claimed victory over this announcement, though it’s difficult to see how their actions led to Shell’s decision.

After years of planning and millions of dollars, Shell finally began drilling on its Berger A Prospect in the Chukchi Sea on Sept. 10, only to pull up anchors on the drillship Noble Discoverer and move after one day of drilling because of the approaching sea ice.

“As disappointing as it was to pick up anchors so quickly after drilling, especially when everything was going so smoothly, this is what responsible Arctic operations look like,” said Curtis Smith, Shell Alaska’s spokesman in Anchorage, Alaska. 

At the same time, the company’s other drilling rig, the Kulluk, had been waiting for the native whale-hunting season to be concluded in the Beaufort Sea before commencing operations at Shell’s lease site there. 

Both sites were also waiting for the arrival of the Arctic Challenger, the oil-spill containment barge being retrofitted by Superior Energy Services in Bellingham, Wash. The Coast Guard had yet to sign off on the barge’s many systems, which had kept it in Puget Sound longer than originally expected. 

“This [barge containment system]is serial number 001,” said Smith, “so a lot of this is just trying to make sure that we’re building something that’s capable of doing what it’s supposed to once it gets to the Arctic. When we’re finally finished with the Challenger, we’ll have the only blueprints in the world for an Arctic containment system like this. It’s disappointing that we don’t have it right now, but obviously it’s not something that can be rushed. When it’s ready to operate perfectly in the Arctic, we will release it, not before.”

Shell’s plans also suffered another setback when its containment dome was damaged during testing.

The exploratory drilling had been allowed to proceed without the oil-spill containment systems of the Arctic Challenger standing by, but only without penetrating hydrocarbon zones at the well sites. Smith said there was other work to be done before drilling into the oil itself. That includes installation of a cemented casing and excavation of a 20’×40′ space in the ocean floor for the blowout preventer.

“For us, drilling is drilling,” said Smith. “You only get to the bottom of the hole if you start at the top. There were a lot of cheers and high-fives when we started drilling, and there will be again when we finish.”

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