The media is reporting that Shell announced this morning that they are abandoning drilling in the Arctic until this year. I’m not reading their statement that way. Shell is not abandoning its drilling program; their approved “tophole” operations are continuing as cleared by the Department of Interior. Topholes are basically the foundations for deeper wells, and allow the blowout preventer (BOP) for each well to actually sit below the seafloor to protect it from sea ice dragging across the bottom, creating a huge hazard to subsea equipment. After the topholes are completed, the wells are to be plugged and abandoned until a later time, where the rig will return at a later date to drill deeper. Approval for this deeper drilling would only come after final testing of an oil containment system and the deployment of that system on the active drilling site.
What Shell actually announced this morning was that the containment dome they were testing in Washington suffered some kind of undisclosed damage during final testing. Because of this, the company said that it would not attempt drilling in hydrocarbon zones this year, but would continue tophole operations. By my judgement, the chances for drilling deep enough for hydrocarbons this year was remote anyway, especially since permits to conduct those operations had not even been issued.
Many, including me, believe that containment operations of a blowout would be difficult in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, making well control the most critical safety element of drilling in this region. In other words, the best way to control a blowout here is to not have one in the first place.
That is the real challenge.
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