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Vol. 17, No. 48 Week of November 25, 2012
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Explorers 2012: Environmental and subsistence concerns

Environmental protection and respect for the rights of local subsistence hunters form key components of any endeavor to explore in the Alaska Arctic offshore.

And from the start of its recent Alaska Arctic exploration venture, Shell has had to face the concerns of the North Slope Native communities about the potential impacts of offshore industrial activities on the subsistence hunting of marine mammals, in particular bowhead whales — following some initial, ambitious plans for the simultaneous use of two drilling rigs in the Beaufort Sea, the company scaled back its expectations, committing to the use of just a single drilling rig in each Alaska Arctic sea, and to the drilling of a just a limited number of wells in each drilling season.

Mitigation measures

Shell has agreed to cease drilling in the Beaufort Sea during the annual subsistence whale hunt and to remove drilling waste from its Beaufort Sea drilling operations, for disposal outside the Arctic. The company has implemented a system of communications centers in North Slope villages, with the objective of achieving effective communications between offshore oil operations and community subsistence hunting activities.

In reflecting on experience in deploying Shell’s drilling fleet in the 2012 open water season, Pete Slaiby, Shell’s vice president in Alaska, told Petroleum News that local subsistence advisors, stationed in the villages, had proved particularly effective in notifying Shell about subsistence activities, to avoid conflicts between those activities and industrial operations. And Shell has investigated any reports of disturbance to caribou hunting, for example, he said.

Oil spill risk

With the risk of a major oil spill probably being the biggest environmental concern with Arctic offshore oil activities, Shell has adopted a policy of maintaining a self-sufficient oil spill response capability while also placing a high priority on spill prevention through factors such as effective well planning and the remote monitoring of drilling progress.

In addition to its capping and containment systems, designed to prevent the flow of oil into the ocean, the company has a response fleet that includes a purpose-built, ice-capable response vessel, spill response barges and a 513,000-barrel capacity, ice-class, double hulled oil tanker.

The oil spill response fleet is designed for deployment in parallel with any offshore drilling operations, ready to swing into action in the event of an oil spill emergency. Shell’s spill contingency plans also include the deployment of nearshore and onshore spill response assets.

Environmental monitoring

From the perspective of gathering environmental data for assessing and determining the environmental impacts of Arctic outer continental shelf oil exploration and development, Shell and other companies involved in exploring the Chukchi and Beaufort seas have been conducting a multi-year environmental monitoring program, primarily involving the collection of data about marine mammal activity through the use of offshore acoustic recorders.

Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil have also been conducting environmental research around their potential Chukchi Sea drill sites, obtaining detailed information about the marine environment in these areas.

And in November 2010 Shell and the North Slope Borough initiated a joint program of scientific research into the offshore environment.

NPR-A studies

In anticipation of the need for an oil pipeline across the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, to ship future Chukchi Sea oil production to the central North Slope, Shell has been conducting an environmental study across the reserve. Carried out by Shell scientists and working through an arrangement with Olgoonik Corp., the Native corporation for the Chukchi Sea coastal village of Wainwright, the study has been developing a baseline of biological data, as well as studying hydrology and archaeological sites, Pete Slaiby, Shell’s vice president in Alaska, told Petroleum News Sept. 28.

But controversy continues about the merits or otherwise of exploring for oil on the Arctic outer continental shelf. Some say that cleaning up an oil spill in ice-laden Arctic waters would be impractical using current technologies. Some say that not enough is known about the delicate Arctic offshore environment.

Shell, for its part, says that it has the information, procedures and technologies in place to proceed safely with some exploration drilling, and government regulators appear at this point to concur with Shell’s position.

—Alan Bailey

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