Shell got its permit Wednesday, but it needs its icebreaker back from repairs in Portland before it can drill in "oil-bearing zones."
The Obama administration Wednesday approved Royal Dutch Shell’s permit to drill for oil in 140-foot-deep water off Alaska’s northwest coast. But there’s a catch.
The company can’t drill into “oil-bearing zones” yet because a key piece of safety equipment is headed on an icebreaker to Portland. The piece, called a capping stack, can stop oil from flowing if a well blows out and other measures fail.
In the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a capping stack ultimately quelled oil pouring into the sea. As Scientific American reports, the measure provided enough time for engineers to kill the well, but not before more than 5 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.
In a news release, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement requires that “a capping stack be on hand and deployable within 24 hours.” Shell can apply to modify its permit when the icebreaker is ready.
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Shell told The Associated Press that it uses about half the time it takes to drill a complete well for “top-hole work,” which is approved now.
The icebreaker, named the MSV Fennica, was damaged early this month after departing Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. The boat struck an object, and was left with a 3-foot long gash. The vessel is headed to Portland for repairs. The trip from Portland to Dutch Harbor took the ship about two weeks.
In Portland, the Coast Guard has designated a safety zone for people working on the 380-foot icebreaker, the Oregonian reports. Protesters will have to stay at least 100 yards from the ship.
This is the latest setback for Shell’s drilling efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s walrus-protection effort is preventing the company from drilling in two locations simultaneously. The agency’s regulations require rigs to be at least 15 miles apart. Shell planned for two wells to be drilled about nine miles apart.
The company also met resistance in Seattle from environmental activists and the city, where it moored the Polar Pioneer drill rig. Environmental groups say they’re concerned about the risk of an oil spill in the Arctic and climate change.
Activists formed a flotilla of kayaks to demonstrate against Shell. Members of the Seattle activist group the “Raging Grannies” were arrested after trying to block the entrance to Terminal 5, where the Polar Pioneer was docked. Activists flooded the phone lines of firms supporting Shell during the Polar Pioneer’s stay in Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray and the city of Seattle put up a roadblock, when it determined the Port of Seattle did not have the proper permit to moor and maintain Arctic drilling equipment. Twenty-four kayaking protesters were detained as the Polar Pioneer left Seattle.
In another protest move, activists in Bellingham attached themselves to a Shell barge headed to the Arctic.
Federal estimates indicate there could be 25 billion barrels of oil in the region where Shell is drilling.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how many barrels of oil could be in the region where Shell is drilling.