Update! Finally, Shell reaches last step to drilling off Alaskan coast!
Just days ago, the EPA granted Royal Dutch Shell's request for a request for a waiver from current air pollution regulations for an offshore drilling ship, Noble Discoverer. As of September 5th, the 512 foot long vessel was in the Chukchi Sea awaiting the arrival of a sister ship, the containment barge Arctic Challenger, which is undergoing retrofit in Bellingham, Washington.
The Noble Discoverer has undergone extensive retrofitting to address "generator emissions" levels (nitrous oxide and ammonia) that were slightly higher than required by law and so a waiver was required. With the EPA permit now in place, Shell is lacking only the arrival of the containment barge to begin the drilling needed to install the blowout preventer, prior to actually drilling for oil.
Late-melting Arctic ice that lingered into July stalled the start of this year's drilling season so Shell and its partners have been racing ahead to make up for lost time. When asked about the current delays in Shell's nearly $5 billion effort to begin tapping oil and gas in the Arctic Circle, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stated “It’s not the ice. It is Shell’s delay in completing [inspections] of its response vessel”. Those delays have actually been caused by the inspections of the Arctic Challenger's retrofit.
Work on the Arctic Challenge has been moving ahead as swiftly as possible, under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Coast Guard, which Salazar said has been "all over" the process. The key remaining concern at this point is the ship's fire prevention systems which are being upgraded and are awaiting Coast Guard certification. When the work is completed the ship will be a unique, state-of-the-art response vessel.
The prime Contractor and supplier on the project is Houston-based Superior Energy's Marine division. The company has taken a five-year lease on 315 feet of shipping terminal dock space in Bellingham and sub-contracted with several local companies including Kvichak Marine. In mid August, Kvichak Marine delivered two 38 ft anchor handling utility vessels that will be housed in the aft, or back, portion of the Arctic Challenger's superstructure. The vessels are so unique and complicated that Superior Energy has installed two custom-made bridge simulators at its training facility in Anchorage, Alaska. In the event of a blowout, these vessels would be used to position the containment dome over the leak, so they are crucial to the containment process.
Once the Arctic Challenger has been certified by the Coast Guard, it can begin the 2,500 mile journey to the Chukchi Sea, which could take as long as two weeks. Although Shell will be allowed to conduct shallow-water drilling in the Beaufort Sea until October 31st, the official end of the drilling season in the Chukchi Sea is September 24th. Shell is currently negotiating with the Department of the Interior to extend that window by a couple of weeks.
Shell currently has plans to spud only one or two wells in the 2012 season, but if the extension in granted, it could add up to three more, bringing the total to five (as originally planned) and giving the company and its partners a valuable head start on the 2013 season!
Plans underway to setup BOPs off the Alaskan coast.