| ANCHORAGE, Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska Oct 11 An oil-spill barge
that Royal Dutch Shell Plc needs to support drilling in
Arctic waters has regulatory approval, even though it has come
too late for this year's operations, officials from the U.S.
Coast Guard and Shell said on Thursday.
Without the Arctic Challenger oil-containment vessel on
site, Shell has been allowed to drill only to shallow depths --
"top-hole" drilling that stops thousands of feet short of
oil-bearing geologic zones.
But the Anglo-Dutch company is gearing up for full
operations next year, in the face of environmental opposition
due to concerns about the potential risks of Arctic drilling.
After the Arctic Challenger's approval from the American
Bureau of Shipping over the weekend, the barge won certification
for seaworthiness from the Coast Guard, according to Rear
Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska.
Shell began drilling one exploratory well in the Chukchi Sea
a month ago. Shell started a second well, in the Beaufort Sea,
last week. The program falls short of its original plan to drill
and complete up to three exploration wells in the Chukchi and
two in the Beaufort this year, and a similar number next year.
Yet Pete Slaiby, Shell's Alaska vice president, said this
activity still marks significant progress. "By the nature of
these wells, about half the work is in the first 1,500 feet,
which is what we are doing this year," he said at a field
hearing held in Anchorage by U.S. Senator Mark Begich.
Now that the barge has been certified, Slaiby said, Shell is
poised to drill into oil next year, so long as regulators
approve that for the operating season starting in mid-2013.
Shell must also complete repairs to the Arctic Challenger's
oil-containment dome, which was bent in a mishap that occurred
during a sea trial in Puget Sound last month, Slaiby said. Shell
said those repairs should be complete next month.
Shell must complete its 2012 drilling by Oct. 31, according
to permits. But it hopes to get permission for top-hole drilling
at more wells by then, Slaiby told reporters after the hearing.