Slow Summer Melt May Interfere With Drilling
Tuesday, May 01 2012
After years of regulatory hurdles and legal challenges, it appears Shell Oil will finally have the approvals it needs to drill in the Arctic this summer. But that doesn’t mean the company’s struggles are over - heavy winter ice in the Alaskan Arctic is threatening to complicate Shell’s drilling plans.
"Our idea is to let Mother Nature dictate when we can get on our prospects," says Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith. "Obviously, we’d like to get there on July 15 - that’s the first day when we can legally start drilling our leases – and that’s what we’re planning to do. But we’re going to watch our forecasts closely of course and we’ll be ready no matter what.”
Smith isn’t ready to disclose where Shell’s in-house forecasters predict the ice will be in July, but the National Weather Service Ice Desk recently released its summer outlook for the Alaskan Arctic. The outlook predicts ice could stick around in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, where Shell is planning to drill, through early-to-mid August.
“It’s going to be an interesting break-up this year,” says Kathleen Cole, the forecaster who put together the outlook.
Cole says record-breaking winter ice combined with cooler-than-average spring temperatures could slow the retreat significantly. Her estimate is that it will take 10 days to two weeks longer than usual for the ice to clear – and even then, she says, it’s possible for it to come back unexpectedly.
“Probably, oh, over 70 percent of the time, I’m very close – within a few days. Either that or I’m way off – like by two or three weeks or a month. And what that means is that a storm has come along and drawn the ice where it normally isn’t at that time of year. And that’s not an unusual occurrence – that happens quite frequently.”
In the event that a storm does bring ice into the vicinity of the drill rigs, Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith says the company is equipped with icebreakers and a management plan, but he emphasized that steering clear of the ice altogether is the top priority.
“The ice is in charge. If for some reason significant ice remains over our prospects, we’re just going to have to wait for it to clear. We have no intention of ‘breaking our way in’, so to speak.”
Smith says it’s still too early to say whether the company will change the timeline for moving vessels and personnel to Alaska based on the ice forecast. Shell has previously said it would start staging in Unalaska sometime in June.