Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig began a two-week journey to the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska on Monday, marking a major step forward in the company’s slow march toward a new era of oil exploration in the region.
The 29-year-old conical drilling rig is being towed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to Shell’s Sivilluq prospect, where the company hopes to drill at least one well before ice encroaches on the region this fall.
The departure of the Arctic-bound rig is a sign of Shell’s confidence that the company soon will be able to launch drilling in the area, despite setbacks that have shortened its window for oil exploration. Shell executives say they now are aiming to complete two wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer, down a previous goal of five.
“We expect to drill this year,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh. “It’s disappointing to lose any days in such a small window, but we look forward to making the most of the time we have.”
The company has been waiting for ice to clear, federal drilling permits and for a critical oil spill response vessel to be ready before it can begin the work. That spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, still awaits a Coast Guard certification and approval from federal drilling regulators.
Shell committed to regulators to have the Challenger containment barge at the ready during drilling in hydrocarbon-bearing zones as part of the company’s oil spill response plan for the region.
Op de Weegh said Shell isn’t backing down from that pledge.
But Shell still could ask regulators for permission to begin other work at the well sites, even if the barge is still in Washington state. For instance, the company could seek approval to begin excavating a space for key emergency equipment in the seabed.
Shell officials have previously said that is a possibility. In a conference call with reporters last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said no such request had yet been made.