Shell sketches plans for Arctic drilling in 2015

The oil drilling ship Noble Discoverer, seen April 5, 2012 in the Port of Seattle before its trip to Alaska for the summer Arctic drilling season.

The oil drilling ship Noble Discoverer, seen April 5, 2012 in the Port of Seattle before its trip to Alaska for the summer Arctic drilling season. (Photo by James Brooks)

Shell Oil took its first step toward returning to the Arctic on Thursday morning. The company filed a new plan to explore the Chukchi Sea with federal regulators in Anchorage.

But that filing is far from a commitment.

Shell’s had the last two years to consider what approach it might take if it returned to explore in the Arctic.

Spokesperson Megan Baldino says that’s apparent in the plans that the company submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Thursday.

“If we move forward in 2015, we are planning for a two-rig program in the Chukchi Sea only. We will be utilizing the Noble Discoverer and the Transocean Polar Pioneer,” Baldino says.

Instead of keeping one rig in Dutch Harbor as a backup — as they’ve proposed in the past — both vessels would be sent north to drill.

Shell would be taking advantage of the short ice-free summer, which they’d need to make progress on the six wells that the company wants to complete within the next few years.

But Baldino says that’s not set in stone, because Shell’s not sure if it will return next summer.

“It’s really important to point out that we have not made a formal decision. But we are undertaking activities including submitting this plan, in order to keep the option of a 2015 season,” Baldino says.

Shell tried to mount an expedition to the Arctic in 2014. But they canceled those plans after an appeals court cast major doubt on the legality of Shell’s leases in the Chukchi Sea.

That question still hasn’t been resolved, says John Callahan. He’s a public affairs officer for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM.

Callahan says that regulators have to finish a new environmental impact statement for the 2008 Chukchi Sea sale.

“At that point, assuming that this supplemental EIS is accepted, then the Secretary of the Interior will make a decision in March of 2015 as to whether to uphold the sale and proceed, or cancel the sale,” Callahan says.

Until that happens, Callahan says BOEM can only conduct an informal review of Shell’s new exploration plans.

“We’ll call Shell and have meetings, and say, ‘We need more information on X,’ or, ‘It doesn’t look like Section Y is complete.’ That kind of thing,” Callahan says.

Those lines of communication won’t extend to the public. BOEM will not post Shell’s exploration plans to its website or take comments on them until the leases are on solid ground.

But that’s not stopping some environmental groups from weighing in.

On Thursday afternoon, Oceana vice president Susan Murray issued a statement, saying Shell’s “no more prepared to conduct offshore oil and gas exploration activity in Alaska’s remote Arctic Ocean than it was in 2012.”

Until Shell and other oil companies can prove they’re ready, Murray says the federal government should put Arctic exploration on hold.

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