WASHINGTON, DC, August 30, 2012 (ENS) – The Obama Administration today gave Shell approval to prepare for oil drilling in environmentally fragile Chukchi Sea off Alaska although a critical oil spill containment vessel has not been certified.
Shell will be permitted to start “certain limited preparatory activities” for drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters.
Salazar said that Shell can construct a 40-foot-deep structure needed to install a blowout preventer, a stack of valves intended to keep oil from entering the water in case of a well blowout.
He said Shell also would be allowed to drill a “top hole” as deep as 1,400 feet and set steel pipe and concrete.
“Today’s action does not authorize Shell to drill into oil-bearing reservoirs,” Salazar said.
Shell has said the shallowest oil-bearing reservoirs are about 4,000 feet deeper.
Shell was allowed to move forward because time is running out before ice closes in at the drill site in the Chukchi Sea 70 miles offshore of the coastal town of Wainwright, Alaska.
James Watson, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, BSEE, today said, “It is our highest priority that any activities that occur offshore Alaska be held to the highest safety, environmental protection, and emergency response standards. Shell’s applications for permits to drill into potential oil reservoirs remain under review, and Shell will not be authorized to drill into areas that may contain oil unless and until the required spill containment system is fully certified, inspected, and located in the Arctic.”
“Today’s announcement authorizes Shell to move forward with limited activities well short of oil-bearing zones that can be done safely now prior to the certification and arrival of the containment system.”
Shell’s drillship Noble Discoverer is expected to arrive at the Chukchi exploration drill site late Friday.
BSEE inspectors will be present on the Noble Discoverer to provide continuous oversight and monitoring of all approved activities, Watson said. BSEE safety experts have already conducted what Watson called “thorough and comprehensive inspections of the drillship and Shell’s response equipment.”
Shell had applied for permission to drill five or six exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this season. But before Shell drills into oil reservoirs, the company will have to complete the certification required by the BSEE of the Arctic Challenger, a 4,700-ton spill containment vessel being refitted in Bellingham, Washington.
Salazar said Shell estimates that the Challenger can be certified within five days. Shell has said it would take two weeks to move the vessel from Bellingham to the drill site.
The Interior Department has said that Shell would not be allowed to drill in the Chukchi Sea past September 24, which would leave enough time for a relief well to be drilled in the event of a spill. The deadline is October 31 in the Beaufort Sea to the east.
A federal lawsuit to force release of “crucial” safety data on response to an offshore oil rig blowout in Arctic waters was filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.
The national group representing workers in government resource agencies says the unreleased testing data would shed light on whether there could be a repeat of the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico from the first wells to be drilled this summer on the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf.
In a June 27, 2012 press release, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement declared that Shell had passed “comprehensive testing” on its “Arctic-ready capping stack system.”
BSSE described the capping system as a “key piece of safety equipment” needed to prevent a recurrence of BP’s three-month-long, five million barrel oil spill in the Gulf and that its “crucial” tests were “leaving nothing to chance.”
Following the BSSE press release, Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member who is an expert in oil spill response, requested the actual Shell cap test data under the Freedom of Information Act.
BSSE has not produced the data within the statutory time limits and today PEER, representing Professor Steiner, filed a lawsuit to compel release of the testing results.
Steiner said, “The Department of Interior and Shell say that the capping stack tests were rigorous and proved the equipment will work to stop a wellhead blowout. But the public deserves to see the test results to judge whether the testing was indeed rigorous, and whether the capping stack actually works.”
“That DOI is delaying release of the results, and Shell is poised to begin drilling its first Arctic Ocean wells within days, underscores the urgency here. This is why we needed to sue to obtain the results,” Steiner said.
This February, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report entitled “Interior Has Strengthened Its Oversight of Subsea Well Containment, but Should Improve Its Documentation.”
The GAO report found that the Interior Department has no definitive process for insuring both the availability and the reliability of blowout prevention and response equipment.
The report also stressed the “unique risks” of Arctic offshore drilling, including floating ice, scouring ice that shears along the ocean floor, and lack of any emergency infrastructure in the frigid, remote seas.
“Given its track record, Interior cannot just say ‘Trust us, we have this covered,’ said PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed the legal action today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“Complete transparency on this paramount issue is essential for public confidence that the federal government is not again accommodating oil companies at the expense of protecting irreplaceable public resources,” said Douglass.
PEER also has urged that the Interior Department require redundant back-up systems as the Canadians do to prevent the nightmare scenario of a runaway spill under impenetrable sea ice from a blowout at the end of the short drilling season.
PEER says Interior has rejected multiple response requirements, instead relying on the single capping stack system now being towed to the Arctic.