ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In mid-August, Royal Dutch Shell PLC's top Alaska scientist, Michael Macrander, and his team were closely monitoring a row of computer screens at the company's midtown offices here.
The scientists focused on the up-to-the-minute radar and satellite images of the weather and sea ice conditions in Alaska's western and northern coastal waters -- conditions that Shell's Noble Discoverer drillship was likely to encounter as it approached the company's Burger-A oil lease in the Chukchi Sea.
At one point, a scientist pointed to a computer image of a small ice floe located within a few hundred miles of the drill site. For the time being, the ice was not an immediate concern, he said.
On Sunday, the Chukchi site was clear of ice and the Discoverer began preliminary drilling, the first oil exploration work in U.S. Arctic waters in more than two decades (Greenwire, Sept. 10).
But the next day, the unpredictable Arctic winds began pushing sea ice uncomfortably close to the drilling area. As a precaution, the company disconnected the drilling rig from the seafloor anchors and temporarily moved the vessel off the well site. Shell officials estimate that the slow-moving ice, which will take a few days to clear, is about 30 miles long and 12 miles wide, with a thickness up to 25 meters.
"Once the ice moves on, the Noble Discoverer will re-connect to anchors and continue drilling," Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said in a statement. She praised the company's ice and weather monitoring program for providing "one of the most comprehensive pictures of Arctic sea ice movement in the world at this time."
Shell has spent $4.5 billion on leases, equipment and personnel to explore for oil this year in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The company is eager to become the first to tap into the 26 billion barrels of oil that federal officials estimate are available in the U.S. Arctic offshore region.
To support its massive drilling program, Shell invests $15 million each year in research aimed at understanding ice conditions, ecosystems, sea life and physical oceanography in the Alaska Arctic. Macrander, an environmental ecologist by training, said the company is generating volumes of new scientific data on Arctic environmental conditions.
For example, the researchers have begun to develop a "mechanistic understanding" of how the Chukchi Sea's ecosystem behaves throughout the year, he said.
"In the past, the Chukchi Sea has been viewed as an important ecosystem, a very productive system, but not hugely diverse in comparison to tropical systems," Macrander explained. "It was viewed as generally pretty much the same no matter where you went. What we found, however, is that there are places that are only 10 or 15 miles apart, but they're radically different."
Macrander has also been advancing new methods of monitoring marine mammals in Alaska's Arctic waters. Under his direction, Shell has installed acoustic listening devices on the seafloor to monitor marine mammal calls as well as the noises that Shell introduces in the area.
"We want to understand how far our sounds propagate and how marine mammals behave around them," he said. "We also have an aerial program. I've got an airplane flying along the Chukchi coast as we speak that's counting marine mammals."
Eventually, Macrander hopes Shell will be able to use unmanned aerial monitoring and research programs to track sea life in the vast Arctic region.
"It's a new frontier, and we're pushing on that," he said.
Been there, studied that
In late July, Greenpeace issued a news release stating that the group's scientists had discovered an unexpected variety of coral species on the Chukchi seafloor where Shell is drilling for oil.
After collecting coral specimens and recording a video of the area, John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA's oceans campaign director, argued that the coral discovery "shows just how little is known about this fragile and unique region. Melting sea ice is not an invitation for offshore drilling in the Arctic, it's a warning that this pristine environment should be protected and dedicated to science."
When asked about Greenpeace's coral discovery, Macrander shook his head and pulled out a 6-inch binder of scientific reports that the company has funded on the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. "We've got about 10 of these binders of science that we've done," he said. "It covers everything from physical oceanography and weather and ice, marine mammals, marine birds, benthos, sediment chemistry. A huge universe of science that we are doing here."
Macrander said Arctic scientists have known about the corals for decades. "It's a known part of the ecosystem. But it's not a defining part of the ecosystem." The corals make up only about 1 percent of the biomass in the ocean floor ecosystem. By comparison, the region is covered with a starfish species known as brittle stars. "They're so dense they're literally touching, they're that close," he said.
Shell's drilling project is likely to affect the sea life at the drill site -- a 100-to-200-meter region of the seafloor. But once the drilling is completed, the company's studies indicate the region will recover within five years.
Despite those assurances, Native hunters in northern Alaska have been particularly worried about the oil industry's practice of dumping drilling muds and cuttings, treated sewage, and ballast water into the ocean.
"It's a huge issue, one that people are concerned about," Macrander said. "That led us to say, OK, in the Beaufort Sea where we are operating is right in the middle of the bowhead whale migration area, we will not discharge."
Because the Chukchi Sea leases are located away from key whale migration routes, the company will dump its nontoxic drilling wastes at that site. But it's also monitoring the seafloor ecosystems and whether the region is affected by sediment produced by Shell's drilling operations.
Shell, together with ConocoPhillips and Statoil, is also funding marine mammal studies in the Arctic. That research is being conducted by the Olgoonik Corp., the Native-owned company established by the community of Wainwright, and Anchorage-based Fairweather Science. It's also financially backing research by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
But several major environmental groups insist that not enough is known about the ecological conditions in Alaska's offshore waters. They argue that industry should suspend all resource extraction operations until scientists can determine which sensitive regions should be protected from future development.
Macrander counters that historically, Arctic scientific research has been underwritten by economic development projects in the area. "There have been cycles in terms of big scientific investigation in these areas," he noted. "In the '50s and '60s it was driven by the military. In the '70s and '80s it was driven by oil and gas. And then we had a little bit of a lull there. Now oil and gas is back again.
"It's an interesting Catch-22," he said. "If you say there's not enough information so we shouldn't be doing anything out there -- that takes away the economic incentive, and then no further research gets done."
Relying on the ice forecast
This fall, as Shell scrambles to salvage the 2012 oil drilling season, the company has been increasingly turning to Macrander and his science team for information on the volatile polar sea ice conditions.
The Arctic ice cap is smaller today than it has ever been in the history of record-keeping, displacing low ice records set in 2006 and 2007. But although the total North Pole ice shrunk, the sea ice lingered into the summer at Shell's oil leases in the Chukchi and western Beaufort seas (EnergyWire, Aug. 8).
Now Macrander is looking for a ray of sunshine in this year's sea ice saga. He argues that in past years when the polar ice cap didn't recede until summer, but subsequently hit record lows, the winter ice did not return until late fall.
That was the pattern scientists saw in 2006, when Shell was working in the Beaufort Sea. "In 2006, we were able to operate late into the season, into early November," Macrander recalled. "At this point, we are projecting that we're going to have a late closure this year. At least a mid-November closure."
Armed with that data, which has been backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Shell is hoping regulators will allow the company to remain in the Arctic into the fall. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he won't rule on that request until Shell secures the permits it needs to begin drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
So far, Interior is allowing Shell to sink preliminary top holes at its Chukchi Sea lease site. But the drill bit is not allowed to enter oil-bearing rock until the Coast Guard signs off on the Arctic Challenger, Shell's oil spill response vessel that is undergoing final inspection in Bellingham, Wash.
Once the Challenger is approved and completes its two-week trip to the Chukchi site, Shell can explore for oil.
But time is ticking away. Shell's current drilling timetable requires the company to suspend operations at the Chukchi site on Sept. 24, which would make it impossible to move the Challenger into position and drill into the hydrocarbon zone this year -- unless Salazar extends the company's drilling window.
Shell's Beaufort Sea drilling program operates under an entirely different set of rules.
At the insistence of local Native hunters, Shell has agreed not to drill on its Beaufort leases during the fall bowhead whale hunting season, which began in late August.
Now Shell is waiting for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission to announce the end of this year's whaling season. The company also is barred from drilling until the Arctic Challenger reaches Alaska's northern waters. In the meantime, the company's drillship, the Kulluk, is waiting outside the Beaufort Sea. Drilling season in that region concludes at the end of October.
While Shell executives concentrate on the 2012 drilling season, Macrander and his team are already looking to the future. Shell is underwriting scientific research along the Chukchi Sea shore that it hopes to use to secure the necessary state and federal permits needed to build an oil pipeline from the offshore drill site to the small Native village of Wainwright.
From there, the pipeline would stretch 280 miles east through Alaska's lake-laced frozen tundra to Prudhoe Bay, where it would hook up with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (EnergyWire, Aug. 22).
"This is, of course, ahead of a discovery" of oil in the Chukchi, Macrander acknowledged. "But if there's the kind of discovery out there that we think we're going to have, we're going to want to move pretty quickly and aggressively toward developing the structure for that prospect.
"We want to get ahead of the game and understand the system that we're working in," he said. "We want to design the optimum developmental program that would be consistent with environmental protection."