The Obama Administration will allow Royal Dutch Shell to begin limited drilling in the Arctic waters off of Alaska's northern coast, an approval that inches the energy company closer to its fossil fuel exploration goals.
Shell won't be drilling for oil tomorrow. The approval announced Thursday by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement allows Shell to begin certain preparatory activities in the Chukchi Sea that will increase overall safety, the government agency said. These activities include the creation of a mudline cellar, a safety feature that ensures that the blowout preventer is adequately protected below the level of the seafloor. Shell is also authorized to drill and set the first two strings of casing into shallow non-oil-bearing zones, the BSEE said in a release Thursday.
Shell will only be able to drill small pilot holes that are not deep enough to hit oil-bearing formations. Shell will be prohibited from exploratory oil drilling until its oil spill containment barge has been certified.
The Interior Department's BSEE and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management previously approved a broad plan to drill in the Beaufort and Chuckchi seas. Shell still must receive permits for individual wells, a hurdle that hinges on the company's oil spill response plan and the certification of its containment system, which is designed to capture flowing liquid hydrocarbons in the event of a loss of well control. The containment barge must be in the Arctic before any drilling into oil-bearing zones can occur.
BSEE engineers recently conducted an initial inspection of Shell’s containment system, but the company has yet to secure the final Coast Guard certification, the agency said.
It's been a long road for Shell. The company has spent upwards of $5 billion and seven years in an effort to get the permits and approvals necessary to explore for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska's northern coast. And according to the Houston Chronicle, the company has run into trouble with the refurbishment of the 36-year-old Arctic Challenger.
The upshot? Shell will likely run out of time this season before the ice begins to form in fall.