High wind, waves, leads Shell to pause exploratory drilling off Alaska's northwest coast



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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Strong winds and high waves that pounded the northern coast of Alaska have led Royal Dutch Shell PLC to temporarily stop exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

"Due to high wind and sea states, we have paused all critical operations in the Chukchi Sea," said spokesman Curtis Smith in an email response to questions.

The eastern Chukchi Sea this week experienced gale-force winds in the range of 39 to 54 p.m., said Ed Townsend, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. Winds at Point Lay on Alaska's northwest coast about 9 a.m. Friday blew steadily at 29 mph with gusts to 37 mph.

Smith said he isn't sure when drilling might resume. "We hope to resume normal operations as soon as it's safe to do so," he said.

The Polar Pioneer, a semi-submersible drilling unit that Shell leases from Transocean Ltd., began top-hole and drilling work July 30 and remains safely anchored at the drill site, Smith said.

Bad weather has postponed previous drilling operations, Smith said, and Shell plans for it. Bad weather affected drilling in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012.

"It's why we use a combination of satellite images, sonar and on-site reconnaissance to inform our operations," he said. "With safety the first priority, we take a conservative approach to these weather events and make plans to curtail operations well in advance."

Arctic offshore drilling is strongly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies have not demonstrated the ability to respond effectively to a spill in harsh conditions where floating ice could hamper cleanup operations.

"Imagine trying to respond to a spill in that kind of weather," said Pam Miller, a longtime Arctic researcher and environmental advocate in Fairbanks.

Halting drilling for severe weather or moving ice was a common occurrence for Shell drilling in 1989 and 1990, she said. Global warming's effect on sea ice, which formerly acted like a blanket over waves, adds to the risk.

"The waves may be even greater. We know they are along shore, where coastal erosion is a problem," she said.

Every time a drill rigs disconnects from a well for weather or ice moving in, she said, it adds to the risk of a spill.

The weather is also affecting operations on shore. Shell is temporarily relocating staff at its housing camp in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. "A road used to transport people to the camp is down to one lane due to high water and could become impassable," Smith said.

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