Beset by delays, Royal Dutch Shell plc has asked U.S. officials for a bit more time to conduct its inaugural drilling program in Alaska's offshore.

Shell late last week asked the Department of Interior for an extension of about two weeks, which would allow the producer to conclude its initial program in early October. Interior had set a cutoff date for drilling in the Chukchi Sea of Sept. 24. However, the "ice forecast is indicating just under two more weeks of open water," said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh. "Because we could remain in the open water longer, it could also potentially allow us to drill even in the hydrocarbons zone past the Sept. 24 date."

Drilling was to begin in the Chukchi in July on the Burger prospect, but delays in certifying a mandatory oil spill response vessel to U.S. Coast Guard specifications forced the delay. Shell also has tentative permits to drill in Alaska's Beaufort Sea until Oct. 31.

"It remains our goal to drill two complete exploration wells plus begin some wells which can be drilled to total depth next summer," said op de Weegh.

The Anglo-Dutch producer already has spent close to $5 billion over the past several years in its quest to become the first company in years to drill in Alaska's offshore.

Shell has revamped its Alaska drilling program several times this year alone. Originally it planned to drill five wells this summer, two in the Chukchi and three in the Beaufort Sea. The plan has since been scaled back for 2012 to two wells, one each in the Chukchi and Beaufort (see Daily GPI, July 30). BP plc in July scuttled a planned drilling project in the Beaufort after concluding that the endeavor should not go forward as designed (see Daily GPI, July 11).

Shell also has asked Interior for the OK to conduct some preparation work for 2013, which would include digging holes on the sea floor for blowout preventers to avert spills.

The Noble Discoverer departed Alaska's Dutch Harbor and is set to arrive at the Chukchi drilling site around Labor Day. Shell's Arctic Challenger ship is expected to arrive at the drilling site by the end of the week. All 12 anchors for the Kulluk drilling rig also have been laid in the Beaufort Sea, said op de Weegh.

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