Shell still hasn’t received final permits for its Arctic drilling plans, but the company is starting to send vessels north anyways.
Two of the company’s support vessels – the Aiviq and the Fennica – left Unalaska early this week for the Chukchi Sea. The icebreaker Tor Viking is expected to join them in the next few days. Together, the vessels will start prepping the drill site for the Noble Discoverer’s arrival.
“This is what planning for success looks like and this is what efficiency looks like,” says Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith. “And these are days, of course, in a shortened season already that we want to use as efficiently as possible.”
Smith says the company is not putting its Chukchi drilling plans on hold while the EPA considers proposed changes to the Noble Discoverer’s air permit. Shell said last month it isn’t able to meet the requirements of the permit and asked the EPA to make revisions. But Smith says those will take months and that in the meantime, the company is planning to drill anyway.
Once Shell actually starts drilling, the EPA could determine the company is out of compliance with its permit and issue fines. The agency wouldn’t talk on the record for this story.
The air permits are only one of the company’s unresolved problems. Shell’s oil spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, is still under construction in Bellingham, Washington. Once construction is finished, the barge will need to be inspected and approved by the Coast Guard. Smith thinks that can happen by next week.
“And then hopefully, in the days to come, given permit approvals, the rest of the fleet can move north as well,” he says.
The Department of the Interior has said previously Shell’s final permits are contingent on Coast Guard approval of the containment barge.
Shell is also waiting for ice to clear from its Beaufort Sea prospects. National Weather Service ice forecaster Kathleen Cole predicts it will be at least a month before the ice is completely gone.
“I don’t know how much ice they’d take, but the ice should be out of that area sometime in late August, early September,” Cole says. “We still have a lot of ice up there to move.”
Cole adds that’s not unusual for the Beaufort. Shell says it won’t break its way to the drill site.
“We have the best information and the best images right now in the world of the ice cover in the Alaskan Arctic,” says Shell’s Smith. “So, of course, we’ll watch that closely and as the ice moves out, we’ll take that opportunity to move in.”
For the time being, both of Shell’s drillships, along with a handful of support vessels, are still in Unalaska.