Yesterday, the Obama administration gave approval to Shell to conduct limited drilling in the Arctic.

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Brian Salerno said that Shell has received conditional approval of two Applications for Permits to Drill (APD) to conduct limited exploratory drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea offshore Alaska. Specifically, the APDs limit Shell to drilling only the top sections of wells and prohibit Shell from drilling into oil-bearing zones.

Shell is currently prohibited from drilling into oil-bearing zones because BSEE requires that a capping stack be on hand and deployable within 24 hours. Shell’s capping stack is staged on the drilling support vessel Fennica, which is currently en route to Portland, Ore., for repairs.

The Coast Guard has established a temporary safety zone and a Voluntary First Amendment Area associated with the arrival of the Fennica in Portland. The zone, which will remain in effect until the vessel departs, is necessary to allow maximum use of the Columbia and Willamette River waterways by all users consistent with safe navigation and to ensure special interest groups and other mariners are not at risk of injury, the Coast Guard said. A safety zone extending 500 yards in front of the vessel and 100 yards to the port, starboard and astern of the vessel will be in place around the Fennica while the vessel is transiting, and a 100-yard safety zone will be in place around the vessel while moored, at anchor or in drydock.

When the Fennica is capable of being deployed in the Chukchi Sea and Shell is able to satisfy the capping stack requirement, the company may submit an Application for Permit to Modify the APDs and request to have this restriction reconsidered.

“Without question, activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards,” said Salerno. “Without the required well control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones. As Shell conducts exploratory activities, we will be monitoring their work around the clock to ensure the utmost safety and environmental stewardship.”

The APDs were approved after careful review of the adequacy of Shell’s ice management plans in the absence of the Fennica as well as the consistency of the plans with protections in place for marine mammals. In addition to redundancy provided by other ice management offshore support vessels, Shell will employ aerial reconnaissance over flights, satellite imagery and other measures to monitor ice floes to fulfill the operational goals of the ice management plan in terms of early detection and site safety. The use of these enhanced technologies will allow Shell to meet its operational requirements for ice management, while conforming to the Hanna Shoal Walrus Use Area restrictions identified by the USFWS.

To ensure compliance with the APDs, BSEE safety inspectors will be on the drilling units Noble Discoverer and Transocean Polar Pioneer 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide continuous oversight and monitoring of all approved activities. The inspectors are authorized to take immediate action to ensure compliance and safety, including cessation of all drilling activities, if necessary. BSEE experts have been engaged in thorough inspections of both drilling units and Shell’s response equipment.

To view the Applications for Permit to Drill (APD) and responses, click here.

David Krapf has been editor of WorkBoat, the nation’s leading trade magazine for the inland and coastal waterways industry, since 1999. He is responsible for overseeing the editorial direction of the publication. Krapf has been in the publishing industry since 1987, beginning as a reporter and editor with daily and weekly newspapers in the Houston area. He also was the editor of a transportation industry daily in New Orleans before joining WorkBoat as a contributing editor in 1992. He has been covering the transportation industry since 1989, and has a degree in business administration from the State University of New York at Oswego, and also studied journalism at the University of Houston.