ANCHORAGE - Shell Oil Co. will take additional steps to ensure the exploratory drilling it plans to do in the Arctic Ocean this summer will be done safely, company President Marvin Odum said recently in a letter to federal regulators.
Critics say the company still isn't equipped to clean up a spill in the remote waters off Alaska's northern coast, and they say drilling should be delayed.
Odum outlined Shell's measures in a letter dated Friday to Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum. She requested the information earlier this month after the BP oil rig explosion that began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Shell spent $2.1 billion two years ago for leases in the Chukchi Sea. The MMS estimated the sale area contained 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of conventionally recoverable natural gas.
Shell Oil, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, hopes to use a 500-foot drilling ship for up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi on leases as far as 140 miles offshore, plus two more wells in the Beaufort Sea east of Prudhoe Bay.
Among nine additional measures Odum lists in his five-page letter is a plan to stage in Alaska a "prefabricated coffer dam" - an apparatus that could be lowered to a well to halt a leak, similar to an attempt BP made to stop the Gulf of Mexico spill. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said Shell has successfully used coffer dams in shallower water, most recently to repair hurricane damage to pipelines.
Odum said Shell would double how often it tests its blowout preventer, from every 14 days to once per week.
The company also would design a "remote hot stab system" that would allow a remotely operated vehicle, diver or support vessel to activate the blowout preventer through a cable from a sled on the sea floor a safe distance from the well, Odum said.
"If needed, we will also apply dispersant underwater at the source of any oil flow that might occur," he said, once necessary permits were acquired.
Odum's letter also laid out differences between exploratory drilling in the relatively shallow Alaska outer continental shelf and in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is typical of well conditions that have been safely addressed for more than 30 years, he said.
"The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in 5,000 feet of water to a depth of 18,000 feet. This type of well is technically more complex than those wells planned in the Arctic for 2010," he said.
Pressure in the gulf well was two to three times greater than what Shell expects in Alaska, Odum said. Shell plans to drill in approximately 150 feet of water to a depth of approximately 7,000 to 8,000 feet in the Chukchi and a depth of about 10,200 feet in the Beaufort.
Odum also cited Shell plans already approved by MMS and said the company would be ready to respond with oil spill response assets in one hour.
"I have complete confidence in the technical integrity of our well plans," he said.
Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group, said Tuesday that Shell is still not prepared to respond to a major spill. The company instead emphasizes its previous claim that the chance for a blowout is slim, she said.
"On spill response, there's not much different than what they have in place," she said of Odum's letter.
In the gulf, 13,000 people and 520 vessels are responding with 1.4 million feet of boom and half a million barrels of dispersant. In Alaska, the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles from Shell's leases, she said.
"Their plan does not come close to that, and to get anything near those numbers into the remote Arctic Ocean would be virtually impossible," Heiman said.
Odum's letter raises more questions than answers, she said, such as how methane hydrates - icebound methane that forms in low temperatures - will react.
"Have they ever tried a coffer dam in the Arctic Ocean? Have they ever drilled with a coffer dam and proved that it could work?" she asked.
Until the reason for the Gulf blowout is figured out, she said, the MMS should take a careful approach.
"How can we move forward in the Arctic Ocean with so many unknowns?" she asked. "We're asking for a delay, to suspend the leasing, until we know what the cause of the spill was."