ANCHORAGE, Alaska — After 6 years of planning, and $4.5 billion in expenditures, the Shell Drilling Rig "Noble Discoverer" is tonight (Sunday) just 10 miles from its goal.
After an 8-day-journey from Dutch Harbor, the vessel now sits in the Chukchi Sea -- and is preparing to attach itself to 8 anchors that have already been prepositioned on the sea bottom by the Shell support vessel "Nanuq".
Late this afternoon, Shell officials were elated to finally be so close to their goal -- especially after such a large investment of time and money. "As you might imagine," said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith, "there's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm around this project right now. Our job is to focus that energy onto taking this next important step -- in a way that's safe for everyone involved."
That next important step is attaching "the Disco" to those 8 pre-positioned sea anchors.
But such an operation might be slightly complicated this week. As you might expect in the Arctic, the weather is not cooperating.
Channel 2 Meteorologist Tracy Sinclare says that 2 Low Pressure systems are starting to bear down on the Chukchi. It's possible they could produce 50 to 60 mile an hour winds -- and 10 foot seas -- through Thursday of this week. "Yeah, " Sinclare says, "It's going to be a little stormy (there) over the next few days,"
But Shell says it's prepared for such conditions.
"We've always said that 'Mother Nature' is in charge when it comes to working in the Arctic," says Curtis Smith. "That's proving out this weekend. But we're going to watch it closely. We're going do it safely and responsibly," he adds.
As of Sunday night, Smith did not know if the winds and seas would prevent the hoped-for hook-up to the sea anchors on Monday. He says crews are prepared to back-off of the planned anchoring operation -- and sit things out -- if that's what's best for safety. He also says those crews are keeping an eye out for ice floes -- which were reported in the drilling area on Sunday, and which could also contribute to delays.
The convergence of all this high technology -- and heavy equipment -- on the Chukchi this week was made possible by a decision handed down by the U.S. Department of the Interior last week. On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided Shell could start drilling shallow wells in the Arctic Ocean without the presence of its oil containment barge, "Arctic Challenger."
Right now that barge is sitting at a dock in Bellingham, Washington undergoing electrical system improvements. It is still awaiting certification by the U.S. Coast Guard. It's possible that certification could come as early as this week.
The containment barge is needed if Shell hopes to drill into "oil-bearing rock" this summer. The Interior Department will not allow the oil company to drill any deeper than 1300 feet unless the Arctic Challenger is on the scene. The oil in the Chukchi is believed to be located at depths deeper than 5,000 feet.
Environmentalists are concerned about Interior's decision to let shallow-drilling proceed. They say that even though Shell will not be drilling into oil-bearing rock, there is always the risk that it could hit an unexpected gas pocket -- potentially causing a blowout. Rebecca Noblin, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Alaska says that last February, an oil company called Repsol did exactly that during land-based drilling on the North Slope. The company poked a hole in an unanticipated area of high methane pressure -- and blew tens of thousands of gallons of drilling muds onto the tundra.
However, Shell counters that there's no risk of that in the Chukchi. They say the geology has been well-studied there -- through 3-D Seismic Imaging == and that the shallow depth poses little risk of striking a high-pressure gas pocket.
And Shell adds that the drilling that could take place in Alaska's arctic waters this week is of historic significance. The U.S. Geological Survey says that the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas -- off or our Coast -- could contain 25 to 27 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That's a phenomenal amount. For example Prudhoe Bay, the greatest oil find in North American history, has only recovered 17 billion barrels of oil in its 35-year-lifetime. So the waters off Arctic Alaska may actuallycontain more oil than Prudhoe Bay.
If Shell can actually start finding the oil that the seismic surveys indicate is there, then -- in the next few years -- thousands of jobs could be created in Northwest Alaska to support preparations for commercial drilling there. In addition, contractors would have to build a 400 mile pipeline across Northwest Alaska -- to hook-up the Arctic Ocean oil fields to the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
Shell portrays a new era of prosperity in the state that could rival the halcyon days of the 1970's and 80's.
Nevertheless, it all awaits real-life confirmation of the promising data in the seismic surveys. You don't have "proven reserves" until you physically find the actual oil.
In the meantime, environmentalists are profoundly concerned. They say that no technology exists to clean-up oil in ice-choked waters if there is a spill. Indeed, they say, on major spills -- even in NON-Arctic waters -- the track record for clean-up is not encouraging. On many major spills, only 3 to 10 percent of the oil is ever recovered.
They also worry that even if there is no spill, the noise from routine drilling operations could interfere with the reproductive success of marine mammals like Bowhead Whales. They also worry about its effects on Walruses and Polar Bears.
And Greenpeace says that its underwater research submarines have found coral reefs in the Chukchi drilling area. The environmental group says that in the harsh arctic environment, such delicate coral reefs are essential to maintaining fish populations.