[IMG]http://fuelfix.com/files/2011/07/Discoverer1-306x229.jpg[/IMG] The Noble Discoverer drill ship is set to begin drilling in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. (Photo Courtesy of Shell Oil Co.) WASHINGTON — A new era of oil exploration in the Arctic frontier is set to begin this weekend, when Shell is slated to launch drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
After connecting the Noble Discoverer drillship to anchors at Shell Oil’s Burger Prospect on Friday, the company is set to begin boring an 8.5-inch-wide pilot hole that will extend roughly 1,400 feet below the seabed, creating the foundation for the oil well to come and ensuring no physical obstructions or hidden gas pockets are in the way.
Shell then plans to excavate a 20-foot by 40-foot mud cellar to hold emergency equipment called a blowout preventer that is a last defense against unexpected surges of oil and gas from the well. Although blowout preventers generally rest above the sea floor, the location of Shell’s below the seabed is designed to keep it clear of any large ice floes.
Later, Shell will drill a wider hole about 1,300 feet below the seafloor, filling it with drillpipe and cementing it into place.
Although oil companies drilled more than 30 wells in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort sea to its east starting in 1982, Shell’s exploration is the first in a decade.
Federal regulators are barring the company from drilling into oil- and gas-bearing zones until a critical oil spill containment system is on site. And for now, that containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, is still in Washington state, where it has been undergoing retrofits and is ready for trials.
“Testing on the first-ever Arctic containment system is planned for this weekend,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh.
The containment barge must win certification from the Coast Guard and approval from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement before it can begin a trek of at least two weeks to Arctic waters north of Alaska.
It appears unlikely Shell will be able to complete a single Chukchi Sea well this year, unless regulators relax a Sept. 24 deadline for drilling in hydrocarbon-bearing zones in the region.
The company has asked regulators to grant it 18 extra days to continue drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
Similar drilling in the Beaufort Sea could continue until Oct. 31, but that work has not yet been approved and would be blocked anyway while native Alaskans conduct their fall hunt of the bowhead whale migrating through the area.
Shell’s conical Kulluk drilling unit is now near the Beaufort Sea prospect waiting for the conclusion of the whale hunt to move closer in.
The recent mooring work took longer than anticipated, slowed in part by heavy seas on Friday. Crews connected Discoverer to eight anchors, staged on the seafloor in a circular pattern more than 6,500 feet across.
Shell will need government-approved amendments to its well permit to continue drilling the Burger well and go beyond the initial top-hole drilling at the site.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters last week that Shell’s work is being conducted “under the closest oversight and most rigorous safety standards ever.”
Safety bureau inspectors will be on the Discoverer drillship around the clock.
A fleet of vessels flanks the Discoverer, including the Fennica, which carries a capping stack system for reining in a runaway well.
Op de Weegh said the oil spill response vessel Nanuq and supply vessel Harvey Spirit are handling refueling for the fleet, drawing fuel from the Affinity tanker located nearby. The icebreaker Nordica also is in the region.
Environmental activists complained that regulators appeared to be bending over backward to accommodate Shell’s plans, despite major recent setbacks.
The Discoverer drillship dragged its anchor in Dutch Harbor earlier this year. Deadlines for the completion of the Challenger have long since come and gone. And last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency gave Shell permission to operate the Discoverer in the Arctic, even though the company had conceded it could not meet previously permitted air pollution limits.
The company has spent nearly $5 billion preparing to drill in the region.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the area north of the Arctic Circle contains 90 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas.
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