Shell Oil has submitted a revised 2015 exploration plan for Arctic offshore drilling to federal authorities Thursday, amid questions about how quickly its latest proposal can be evaluated by the Interior Department.
In an emailed statement to Channel 2, Shell Alaska spokesperson Megan Baldino confirmed the submission, which comes amid a business climate apparently warming to further drilling.
“Today, we submitted revisions to our previously approved Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; this step is necessary to keep our 2015 exploration options viable,” Baldino wrote.
Shell suspended its 2014 offshore drilling plans in January after high-profile 2012 safety issues with the drillship Noble Discoverer and the New Year’s Eve grounding of the drilling rig Kulluk on Sitkalidak Island. More recently, however, six Alaska Native corporations invested in Shell’s Chukchi Sea drilling, and Alaskans rejected Ballot Measure 1 and its proposed repeal of Senate Bill 21’s reduced oil taxes.
According to Baldino, both the Noble Discoverer and a new drilling platform, Transocean's Polar Pioneer, would be used in the revised 2015 plan if it's executed. Both are currently undergoing upgrades in Singapore. While previous versions of the plan had involved keeping the Discoverer in reserve at Dutch Harbor, the latest ones involve simultaneous deployment of the drilling assets.
"If we move forward, it would be a two-rig program in the Chukchi at the same time," Baldino said.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokesperson John Callahan says the Anchorage office has the revised plan, and has been “expecting this for a while.”
According to Callahan, leases for the exploration area were sold to Shell in 2008 as part of Lease Sale 193, but an environmental impact statement for the sale was later challenged in court. As a result, the bureau can’t formally move ahead with evaluating the revised documents until Interior Secretary Sally Jewell reaffirms the original sale.
“We’ve received Shell’s exploration plan, but we can’t formally process it until the reaffirmation is complete,” Callahan said. “Shell knows it’ll be a while before we can process this.”
In the meantime, BOEM officials are informally evaluating the exploration plan, even as they hope to finalize a supplemental environmental impact statement for the challenged lease sale by February and release a reaffirmed record of Jewell's decision by March.
“The version that we have now, we do not consider it to be the final version,” Callahan said.
Ocean conservation group Oceana released a statement through its Juneau office on Shell's drilling plans Thursday, questioning the company's safety record to date.
"Shell is no more prepared to conduct offshore oil and gas exploration activity in Alaska’s remote Arctic Ocean than it was in 2012," the group's Pacific vice president, Susan Murray, said in a statement. "The government should take this time to fully evaluate Shell’s exploration plan and uphold the highest standards for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The Arctic Ocean’s oil is not going anywhere, and rushing to extract it is a mistake."
Baldino emphasizes that the company isn't working under a specific timeline, and has not officially committed to 2015 drilling.
"We have not made a formal decision," Baldino said. "It's all about getting it right and safe."
Channel 2's Corey Allen-Young contributed information to this story.
This is a developing story. Please check KTUU.com and the Channel 2 newscasts for updates.