ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Oct 11 (Reuters) - 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.