Federal authorization could force Shell to change Chukchi exploration plans

Royal Dutch Shell Polar Pioneer semi-submersible offshore drillship at the Port of Seattle Terminal 5. (Creative Commons photo by Dennis Bratland)

Royal Dutch Shell Polar Pioneer semi-submersible offshore drillship at the Port of Seattle Terminal 5. (Creative Commons photo by Dennis Bratland)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Letter of Authorization to Shell Tuesday. The authorization allows the oil company to “take small numbers of Polar bears and Pacific walrus incidental to activities occurring during its ‘Outer Continental Shelf 2015’ exploration drilling program in the Chukchi Sea” this summer.

In an accompanying email, Department of Interior Press Secretary Jessica Kershaw writes that “It is important to note that (the Letter of Authorization) does not green-light Shell’s activity this summer, nor does it preclude Shell’s proposed activity.” According to Kershaw, in order to proceed with exploratory drilling, Shell will have to comply with the “Letter (of Authorization) and strong federal oversight.”

According to the letter, Shell must maintain a 15-mile buffer between its two rigs while drilling takes place. That was the subject of a letter environmental groups sent to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewel last week. The groups argue Shell’s plan to use two rigs simultaneously violates a 2013 regulation.

Chris Krenz is the Arctic Campaign Manager and Senior Scientist at Oceana.

“We are disappointed in the issuing of this authorization we believe the correct course of action for the administration would be to rescind the approval of Shell’s exploration plan and the reason why is we have conflicting information of the impact of Shell’s activities on the marine life in the Chukchi Sea.”

According to Jessica Kershaw, “The 15-mile buffer distance is identified in the Service’s final Incidental Take Regulations issued June 2013 that were subject to public comment and designed to ameliorate potential impacts from oil and gas drilling on walrus and polar bears.”

But the well sites where Shell proposes simultaneous drilling may be too close together to be in compliance with the Letter of Authorization.

Spokesman Luke Miller says the oil company is still evaluating the document.

“It’s quite a document as most of these permits and authorizations are, so we are just reviewing it at this point and hopefully we’ll have more in the days to come.”

There are other requirements laid out in the Letter of Authorization: Shell must also keep the Fish and Wildlife Service informed on the progress of their exploration efforts. The company also has to provide detailed marine mammal observation reports.

The letter also outlines the requirements for seismic testing. The company will not be allowed to conduct offshore exploration activities within a 40-mile radius of communities that hunt marine mammals on a subsistence basis including Barrow, Wainwright, Point Lay and Point Hope without specific Fish and wildlife Service approval.

Meanwhile, a second drill rig contracted by Shell is on the way to Alaska. According to Luke Miller, the Noble Discoverer departed Everett Washington [Tuesday] morning. Miller says it’s the last of Shell’s assets to leave the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re not working under any predetermined timelines. Our focus is getting there safely.  In 2012, the journey from Dutch Harbor from the pacific northwest was about two to three weeks, so that’s what we expect.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits operational and support vessels from entering the Bering Strait until July first, in order to minimize encounters with both walrus and subsistence hunters. Miller says the company is still waiting for sea ice to clear before proceeding north.

“It’s hard for me to say with certainty when things will be going. Safety is paramount.  Our plan is to go to the Chukchi once open water permits, but at this point when Mother Nature is going to go and what your schedule is going to be.”

Shell proposes to drill up to six wells between July and late October in the Chukchi’s Burger prospect. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, without an exemption waiver, exploration activities are only authorized between July first and November 30.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement is still reviewing Shell’s Applications for Permits to Drill.

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