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Vol. 14, No. 15 Week of April 12, 2009
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Hoping to drill

Shell and ConocoPhillips outline Beaufort and Chukchi Sea offshore plans

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

Rumor has it that geologists involved in the Chukchi Sea exploration of the late 1980s named the prospects to be drilled — Burger, Popcorn, Crackerjack and so on — after their favorite fast foods. But “fast” is hardly the word that comes to mind when it comes to starting what Shell and ConocoPhillips hope will be a new phase of exploration drilling in Alaska’s Arctic offshore.

Stymied by a November decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, upholding an appeal against the U.S. Minerals Management Service approval of Shell’s Beaufort Sea exploration plan, Shell cancelled plans to drill in the summer of 2009 at its Sivulliq prospect in Camden Bay, having already delayed those plans since the summer of 2007 as a result of a court injunction. And, although in March the court said that it was withdrawing its November decision for reconsideration, Shell has not been able to salvage its 2009 drilling plans.

“Shell has no drilling plans for 2009,” Susan Childs, Shell’s regulatory affairs coordinator for Alaska, told the National Marine Fisheries Service Arctic Stakeholder Open-water Workshop on April 7.

2010 drilling

But the company hopes to be able to drill in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the summer of 2010 using a single drillship, Childs said. And, in advance of applying for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality permit for the drilling operations, Shell has committed funds to retrofit the drillship with new technology to reduce emissions from the vessel’s engines, Childs said (the EPA air quality permit for the Kulluk, the floating drilling platform that Shell had planned to use for Beaufort Sea drilling in 2008, is still subject to an unresolved appeal).

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told Petroleum News April 8 that Shell plans to use the drillship Frontier Discoverer for the 2010 drilling, rather than the Kulluk.

“The Kulluk will remain in Canada for the (2010) season,” Smith said.

Shell will submit an exploration plan for its proposed 2010 drilling to MMS during the winter of 2009-2010, Childs said.

Shallow hazard surveys

In preparation for Chukchi Sea drilling, Shell plans to conduct a survey at the Burger prospect to detect any possible shallow hazards such as gas pockets. Burger, located about 78 miles west of the Chukchi coast village of Wainwright, is the site of a major natural gas field discovered by the Burger well that Shell drilled in 1989-90, a time at which there was little interest in gas development.

Shell conducted a 3-D seismic survey over Burger in 2007.

Childs said that weather and ice conditions in the summer of 2008 had prevented Shell from doing planned Burger shallow hazards survey work at that time. If conditions prevent work at Burger in 2009, or if there is sufficient time available after completing the Burger survey, Shell will do some other site survey work farther out in the Chukchi Sea, at locations around and to the southwest of the old Crackerjack well.

The Chukchi Sea work will start on Aug. 1.

“We’ll try to collect data as long as we can through about Oct. 1,” Childs said.

Marine mammal observers will be stationed on the survey vessel. Shell has developed a subsistence advisor program and is negotiating a conflict avoidance agreement with the whalers from North Slope communities.

Although Shell still sees some problems with what the whalers have requested for the 2010 program, the conflict avoidance agreement is close to completion for 2009, Childs said.

A network of communications centers already established by Shell in North Slope villages will facilitate effective communications between the company’s offshore activities and the local communities. And the communications arrangements for the 2009 offshore activity will be based in Wainwright, Childs said.

Shell does not plan any Beaufort Sea exploration activities in 2009, although the company will continue to operate its system of Beaufort Sea sound detectors, to monitor ambient noise and offshore wildlife activity, Childs said.

ConocoPhillips 2011

Bruce St. Pierre from ConocoPhillips told the stakeholder workshop that his company hopes to drill in the Chukchi in a couple of years’ time.

“Our goal is to drill an exploration well in the summer of 2011,” St. Pierre said.

ConocoPhillips is still deciding on what rig to use for that drilling, and whether to use a floating rig or a jack-up rig, a type of rig that uses extending legs to stand on the seafloor.

During the 2009 open water season, ConocoPhillips plans to prepare for drilling by continuing shallow hazard surveying and coring operations that it began in 2008 in the vicinity of the old Klondike well, a site that the company is now calling Devil’s Paw and that is located about 60 miles southwest of Burger. The company has also been conducting coring operations along possible pipeline routes from Devil’s Paw to the coast.

As part of its operations, ConocoPhillips has been collecting baseline biological data in conjunction with Shell.

“We have been coordinating with Shell and sharing the costs,” St. Pierre said. “… We plan to continue the biological research program this year, with another vessel to go out over the site, and then we anticipate a very similar program in the open water season of 2010.”

Environmental information

The idea is to obtain as much environmental information as possible about the Chukchi, he said.

Shell and ConocoPhillips will also continue to conduct a joint acoustic monitoring program to detect mammals in the Chukchi Sea, Childs said. As part of that program the companies plan to move some of the subsea sound sensors to enable more detailed monitoring in the vicinity of the Burger and Devil’s Paw areas during operations there.

“Now that, as a result of the lease sale, we know the areas where operations are likely to be focused over the coming year, it … begins to make sense to focus (the monitoring) on some of the prospects,” said Shell’s Michael Macrander.

And because Shell is planning a quite limited operation, fairly far offshore, the company does not anticipate doing aerial wildlife monitoring in the Chukchi in 2009, Macrander said. The company will make a completely separate decision regarding aerial surveys for the 2010 open water season, he said.

“We are committed long term … to reducing the risk of manned aviation in these areas,” Macrander said. Shell recognizes the importance of using aerial platforms to gather data and wants to progress the use of unmanned aerial vehicles as much as possible, he said.

Shell, recognizing the safety risks inherent in conducting manned flights far offshore over the Chukchi Sea, has in the past only conducted aerial surveys relatively close to the coast.

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