| ANCHORAGE, Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska Norwegian oil giant Statoil (STL.OL) will wait until at least 2015 to start drilling exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea, a remote but potentially oil-rich frontier off northwestern Alaska, a company spokesman said Friday.
Company officials had previously said they hoped to begin drilling as early as 2014, but that date is now considered unrealistic, said Ola Morten Aanestad, Statoil's Houston-based vice president for communications in North America.
"We will not be drilling in 2014, and we have not made a decision to drill," Aanestad said in a telephone interview, without specifying the reason for the delays.
Statoil has significant lease holdings in the region. The company bought exploration rights to 16 tracts in a lease sale held in 2008 by the Minerals Management Service, and it subsequently acquired minority shares in 50 Chukchi tracts held by ConocoPhillips (COP.N).
But Royal Dutch Shell, the dominant leaseholder in the Chukchi, is the industry leader in exploration there. Shell last week won federal permission to start drilling work.
Shell says it has spent $4.5 billion so far on its offshore Alaska exploration program, including $2.1 billion to acquire federal leases in the Chukchi and about $84 million to acquire federal leases in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska.
Aanestad said his company and others with ambitions to explore the Chukchi are waiting to see how much progress Shell can make.
"We are obviously watching the process that Shell's going through," he said.
Statoil officials have said previously that the company hoped to do its first Chukchi drilling at a prospect called Amundsen, about 100 miles offshore.
The company has already done substantial pre-drilling work to evaluate the area, Aanestad said.
Statoil completed a seismic survey in 2010 and a shallow-hazards survey in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a successor agency to the MMS. Statoil has also cooperated with Shell, ConocoPhillips and others on collecting baseline environmental information, according to the BOEM.
Aanestad said Statoil has no plans for additional seismic surveys. "I think we are where we need to be in that regard," he said.
ConocoPhillips, meanwhile, has submitted an exploration plan that calls for drilling to start in 2014 at a prospect called Devil's Paw. The BOEM is evaluating that plan, which was submitted on March 1.
The Chukchi is believed to hold about 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and about 76 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, according to Department of Interior estimates.
The area is very remote and subject to harsh weather conditions. Up to now, only five exploration wells have ever been drilled in the Chukchi, four of them by Shell. Those wells were drilled two decades ago, and all were capped and abandoned.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)