| ANCHORAGE, Alaska, July 25
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, July 25 Royal Dutch Shell's
plans to drill exploratory wells in remote Arctic
waters off Alaska are being hampered by its failure to secure
key regulatory approvals and lingering sea ice, which have
already led to a three-week delay.
Shell had hoped to use this year's brief, ice-free season to
drill up to three exploratory wells in the remote Chukchi Sea
off northwestern Alaska and up to two in the Beaufort Sea off
the state's northern coast. The company has similar plans for
But bad luck with sea ice and a series of other problems
make it doubtful that Shell will accomplish all of its goals
this year, a company spokesman said on Tuesday.
"We've recalibrated what's possible, based on weather and
logistics this year. No matter how that turns out, we're trying
to make the most of the time that we do have in the theater,"
said Curtis Smith, Shell's spokesman in Alaska.
Shell's original ambitions to start a four-month drill
season on July 1 have been upended by heavier-than-expected ice
coverage in the Bering Sea off western Alaska.
Despite sparse cover in most of the Arctic Ocean, ice in the
Chukchi Sea is still too thick to allow ship traffic, U.S. Coast
Guard Commander Christopher O'Neil said on Tuesday.
Most of Shell's ships are currently gathered at the Aleutian
port of Dutch Harbor, about 1,000 miles away from their Arctic
destinations. But one important ship, an oil-spill barge that is
required to be part of the drilling fleet, has been detained
The barge, the Arctic Challenger, has yet to be cleared by
the Coast Guard for seaworthiness. It is undergoing
modifications in Bellingham, Washington, in an effort to pass
the Coast Guard's tests, O'Neil said.
"It's not certified," he said. "There's construction that's
ongoing that we still have to look at."
Without Coast Guard clearance for the barge, Shell cannot
get approval for permits to drill specific wells, according to a
recent statement from the Department of Interior's Bureau of
Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Another problem for Shell is its inability to meet emission
standards in an air-quality permit issued by the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) last September.
Shell on June 28 asked EPA to increase limits on emissions
of nitrogen oxides and particulates and to eliminate limits on
ammonia emissions for the Noble Discoverer drill ship and its
associated support vessels, to be operated in the Chukchi.
The company, in its request to the agency, said it cannot
meet the permit limits with currently available technology.
Suzanne Skadowski, a Seattle-based EPA spokeswoman, declined
to comment on Shell's requests for changes to that permit and to
another, less-sweeping, air-quality permit.
But EPA on July 13 issued a statement assuring that, by
"using the tools we have under the Clean Air Act, we can protect
air quality while providing the EPA approvals required for Shell
to operate this summer."
Shell suffered another setback earlier this month in Dutch
Harbor when the Discoverer drifted toward shore and nearly
grounded, or possibly experienced what a Coast Guard spokesman
described as a "soft grounding."
Shell has characterized the lingering sea ice as its most
serious challenge this summer.
Shell's Smith said the company hopes ice will melt enough to
allow ships to move into place by early August. "Right now we're
looking at the first week of August for ice retreat. At this
point, the ice is still going to determine our entry into the
Beaufort and the Chukchi," he said.
All operations must cease by October 31 or before, and
drilling must be temporarily suspended during the fall Inupiat
w h ale hunting season, according to Shell's permits. Drilling
into hydrocarbon-bearing zones in the Chukchi must cease 38 days
prior to October 31, according to Shell's permits.
Robert Dillon, an energy committee aide to Alaska Senator
Lisa Murkowski, said drilling supporters are hoping that Shell
will be able to get at least some work done on site this year,
even if that falls short of drilling into an oil discovery.
"We think it's unfortunate that they may not be able to
drill to depth, but that's yet to be seen," Dillion said on
Wednesday. "The most important thing is that Shell is able to
demonstrate, once again, that it can conduct safe operations in
the Arctic and that its activities allow it to resume and
continue next year."
Drilling opponents say the recent problems show why Shell's
plans are too risky for what they characterize as a vulnerable
"As Shell Oil continues to push to drill exploratory wells
in our Arctic Ocean this summer, the oil giant is giving us a
preview of how disastrous a situation this could be," Kristen
Miller of the Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement on