United States allows Shell to prepare for Alaskan drilling
BY RYAN TRACY
WASHINGTON--The United States Interior Department said thursday it will allow Shell to do "preparatory" work on an oil well in the Chukchi Sea while still holding back on a final permit for drilling deep enough to find oil.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the company still has to meet "many outstanding requirements" before it can drill into rock formations that hold oil, but that the agency felt it was safe to allow the company to begin work on the well.
Mr. Salazar said "we believe there is no oil" in the area where Shell would do the preparatory work and the company will not be permitted to drill into oil bearing formations unless its spill containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger, passes the government's safety inspections and arrives at the drilling site.
At this point, we don't know what exactly is going to happen with Shell and whether they are going to be able to complete a well in the Arctic this year, Mr. Salazar told reporters on a conference call. He said Shell has told the government that the Challenger vessel is "probably" four to five days away from receiving the required certification.
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the department's decision "reflects the national importance of exploring the energy resource offshore Alaska." She said the company's drill ship is expected to reach the Chukchi Sea location in three or four days and work will begin once the ship is in place.
The preparatory work involves digging a 40-ft deep cellar and cementing in place two steel casings reaching to a depth of 1,400 ft, Interior Department officials said. The drillers could then install the blowout preventer.
Jim Watson, director of the department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the work is "extremely low risk."
Any exploratory activities will be conducted under the closest oversight and the most rigorous safety standards ever implemented in the history of the United States, Mr. Salazar said. Oceana, a Washington-based environmental group monitoring Shell's efforts, said Thursday "it is disappointing that our government continues to bend over backward to accommodate a company that is still not ready to drill."
Shell has spent about $4.5 billion in its quest to drill the first wells in Arctic waters in 20 years. It currently holds drilling permits that last until September 24 in the Chukchi Sea and october 31 in the Beaufort Sea, both off the Alaskan coast. It has already scaled back its drilling plans from five wells total to two wells, one at each location, as a result of delays.
Shell has asked the Interior Department for a two-week extension on the Chukchi Sea permit that expires in September, amid worries that it couldn't meet the original time line. Mr. Salazar said that it is "absolutely premature to even address" that request without knowing whether the company had its oil-spill containment vessel in place.
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