Shell starts work on first well in Chukchi Sea

By Margaret Kriz Hobson | 07/31/2015 08:41 AM EDT

Royal Dutch Shell PLC began drilling in the American Arctic yesterday evening, shortly after the company’s icebreaker, MSV Fennica, left a Portland, Ore., repair dock where it has been delayed by Greenpeace protesters.

At approximately 5 p.m. Alaska time, Shell’s drill rig the Transocean Polar Pioneer sank its first top hole at the company’s Chukchi Sea leases, according to company spokesman Curtis Smith.

"In the days ahead, the team aboard the rig will work to complete the top portion of the Burger J well in anticipation of drilling to total depth once the Fennica arrives in theatre," Smith said in a statement.

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The operation marked the first time that Shell has drilled in Alaska’s northern waters since its ill-fated 2012 drilling operation, which was marred by air-quality violations, equipment failures and the grounding of its Kulluk rig after drilling concluded.

Under the conditional permits granted last week by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Shell can drill only the top sections of two wells in the shallow Chukchi Sea waters (EnergyWire, July 23).

The multinational oil giant is not allowed to penetrate oil-bearing rock until the arrival of the Fennica, a 22-year-old Finnish icebreaker that is carrying an oil spill capping stack.

Federal regulators mandated that the capping stack be on site when the company drills into the oil zone to contain the flow of crude in case of a well blowout.

Shell is not predicting how long it will take the icebreaker to make the more than 2,000-mile journey to the company’s Arctic lease site, 70 miles northwest of the Native village of Wainwright. But based on previous estimates, the Fennica could arrive within the next two weeks.

The icebreaker had been forced to travel to a Portland repair facility after suffering a gash in its hull early this month while sailing near Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

While those repairs were underway at the Oregon port facility, the ship became the focus of an elaborate Greenpeace protest. Activists hanging by ropes from the St. Johns Bridge over the Willamette River sought to block the Fennica from heading to Shell’s Arctic drill site.

Yesterday, however, a federal court found Greenpeace in contempt of court for violating a May 8 order mandating that activists respect a "safety zone" around Shell’s vessels, including the Fennica, during the drilling season (E&ENews PM, July 30).

Afterward, federal, state and local police forced some of the Greenpeace activists to leave the bridge, creating a gap in the dangling protesters that allowed the Fennica to leave the port and begin traveling to Alaska.

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