ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The federal government began the review process Friday on Royal Dutch Shell's plans to continue a drilling program it halted in 2012 in Arctic waters off Alaska's northern shore.
Shell wants to restart its drilling program in the Chukchi Sea, including drilling six wells in about 140 feet of water, located about 125 miles west of Barrow, the nation's northernmost community.
"The execution of our plan remains contingent on achieving the necessary permits, legal certainty and our own determination that we are prepared to explore safely and responsibly," Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said in an email to The Associated Press. "We continue to work on securing the final permits needed to continue exploration."
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has 30 days to analyze Shell's exploration plan to determine if the company can move forward. The public will have until April 20 to comment on environmental aspects and until May 1 to comment on the overall revised plan, submitted by the subsidiary, Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.
"The proposed drilling is a massive industrial undertaking, and Interior should not rush through its review of the plan with abbreviated comment periods and short-cut environmental review. It must prepare a full environmental impact statement, with meaningful opportunities for the public to weigh in on this dangerous venture," Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice said in a statement.
John Callahan, a federal agency spokesman in Alaska, said the agency "can do a very thorough and robust job of analyzing this over the next 30 days."
Shell in 2012 drilled pilot holes and dug mudline cellars in both the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas. The company was not allowed to drill into oil-bearing deposits because required response equipment was not on hand.
The company experienced problems that culminated with the drill vessel Kulluk running aground off an island near Kodiak as it was being towed across the Gulf of Alaska. The company hasn't drilled in the U.S. Arctic since.
The revised plan calls for two ships, the Noble Discoverer and the Polar Pioneer, owned by Transocean Ltd., to drill and provide relief to each other in case of an accident. There would also be a flotilla of support vehicles.
The Polar Pioneer is currently on the way to Seattle for staging before possibly heading to the Arctic. The transport ship, the Blue Marlin, was boarded by Greenpeace activists Monday about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii, and the six people remain on board.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage on Friday heard arguments in Shell's request to issue a temporary restraining order to remove the activists from the ship. Gleason said she would issue her decision in a day or two, and set a hearing for April 28 on Shell's larger question for an injunction against Greenpeace against further Greenpeace actions on Shell ships bound for, or already in the Arctic.
Lt. Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Seattle, said the agency has received a 96-hour notice of arrival from the Blue Marlin, which is heading for Port Angeles, Wash.
The Department of Interior last month said it affirmed corrections to an environmental analysis of a 2008 Arctic Ocean petroleum lease sale that brought in $2.7 billion for the federal government, paving the way for the decision Friday to begin considering Shell's plan.
The original environmental review for Lease Sale 193 was published in 2007, and the sale happened in February 2008. Shell was the most active bidder and spent $2.1 billion on Chukchi leases. Environmental groups and Alaska Native communities sued, claiming the government prepared an environmental assessment for a sale in the Chukchi Sea based on minimal development — just 1 billion barrels of oil.
Opponents said that was too low and that drilling and development was likely to be far more widespread in petroleum-rich Arctic Ocean underwater deposits.