ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Shell Oil is scaling back its plans for exploratory drilling in Arctic waters. The company says that for now its primary focus is the Beaufort Sea, as it continues to fight environmental groups in court.
Shell says it's still excited about what it might someday find in the Chukchi Sea -- but until ongoing lawsuits are resolved, the company says its most realistic prospects for next summer lie just to the east in the Beaufort.
A single well, perhaps a second: that's all Shell is asking for in its latest exploratory drilling plan.
“We hope that once we got to a place where people have seen the operations we'll be able to slightly scale up,” said Shell Alaska’s Pete Slaiby.
Under the drill permit application filed this week with the Interior Department, Shell would explore only in the Beaufort Sea, with nearby spill response vessels on standby.
In the event of a spill, a containment dome could be lowered over a leaking well to contain oil and gas and a second drill ship could start work on a relief well, as was done during the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- although that disaster happened in much deeper water at much higher pressure.
“Every time there's an incident, you have an opportunity to actually learn from that,” Slaiby said. “We felt that we have a very robust plan coming in.”
Environmental groups still aren’t convinced, and say they'd like to see more studies of the Arctic ecosystem before regulators make a decision.
“Blowouts do happen, even in shallow water in the Beaufort Sea,” said Betsy Beardsley with the Alaska Wilderness League. “Right now the government shouldn't bow down to pressure from the industry, but instead stand behind their pledge to let science lead any of the decision-making that happens in the Arctic Ocean.”
Shell says it hopes to have an answer by early November.
“We begin to assume a lot more cost after the first of the year, because we have to plan, and unless we can plan and do it right then we won’t start -- it’s got to be done, it’s got to come off with absolute precision,” Slaiby said.
Shell says it does not expect these scaled-back plans to result in fewer jobs. The company still expects to generate between 600 and 800 direct positions if drilling is allowed next summer.
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