The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is reviewing an exploration plan by ConocoPhillips that if approved may allow the producer to begin drilling offshore Alaska in the Chukchi Sea in 2014. However, the proposal may be stymied by issues that Interior found in Royal Dutch Shell plc’s inaugural drilling program.

The Devils Paw prospect under review is about 80 miles offshore Alaska in an area south of the Burger prospect, where a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell plc dropped a drillbit last summer in its short-lived inaugural project (see related story; NGI, Jan. 14; July 30, 2012).

ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest oil producer, appears undeterred. An initial exploration plan was submitted to BOEM in 2011; a supplemental plan is scheduled to be issued soon, which BOEM then would take under view for about 30 days.

The planned exploration activity “will have a very short duration and minimal environmental impacts to air quality and are a significant distance away from the nearest onshore community,” ConocoPhillips noted. The Devils Paw prospect, in relation to onshore Alaska communities, is about 83 miles from Point Lay, 121 miles from Wainwright, 150 miles from Point Hope and 192 miles from Barrow.

ConocoPhillips has worked in Alaska for more than 50 years and “has participated in or operated more than 50 exploration wells, including 20 in the National Petroleum Reserve since 2000.” It submitted the required spill response plan for Devils Paw in February 2012, one year after it submitted its initial exploration plan.

The Devils Paw prospect had been in the explorer’s quiver since 2008, when it paid $508 million to acquire 98 of about 500 Chukchi prospects in the Department of Interior’s Lease Sale 198. The Chukchi is estimated to hold 12 billion boe of total recoverable oil and gas, according to federal estimates.

However, litigation and stakeholder demands have dogged all of the prospective Alaska projects.

In 2011 the Obama administration upheld Lease Sale 198, which allowed the new queue of prospects to get in line. The 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico also led to more scrutiny of offshore spill response plans, but Shell was able to surmount all of those hurdles and other operators expect to be able to do the same.

ConocoPhillips plans to drill up to two exploration wells in Devils Paw, which is 80 miles offshore Alaska, during the open water season of 2014. A Noble Inc. jack-up rig, considered optimal for the shallow water depths (140 feet) at the drilling site, is to be used. The jack-up rig, which would be mounted to the sea floor, is expected to minimize downtime because of weather (it wouldn’t have to be moved). It also provide a surface blowout prevention system for well control and intervention.

The rig, unlike the mobile rig that Shell used in the Chukchi, is to be moved using a heavy lift vessel, which would be carried on the deck of the vessel from its shipyard to the well location. An installed ice alert system would monitor ice movement and manage operations to prevent encounters. A BOEM Level 1 well design is being used, which provides full pressure containment in the well bore.

“Prior to drilling, spill response equipment and available resources capable of responding to spills as large as the worst case scenario will be in place,” ConocoPhillips noted. The Alaska arm now has four existing emergency management teams with more than 350 trained employee members. A global incident management assist team of 108 employees also is ready to assist, the producer noted.

“Site specific studies have been underway in the Chukchi Sea since 2006,” said the producer. “In 2008, ConocoPhillips designed and operated (for the first two years) a multidisciplinary baseline scientific program that has focused on data collection related to all key trophic levels including marine mammals, seabirds, fish, physical, biological and chemical oceanography. Due to concerns about the impacts of sound on marine life, an extensive acoustics program has been in place to document both ambient (background) sound and calls from vocalizing mammals.”

Since 2010, ConocoPhillips noted, the studies program also has been jointly supported by Statoil ASA and Shell. All of the raw data “is being shared with the public” through an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the data is being published by the scientists involved in independently peer-reviewed journals. “Since 1973, more than 5,000 independent studies have been conducted in the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf. In the past 10 years alone, more than 250 scientific studies have taken place in the Arctic, primarily focusing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.”

The producer also said it had been “working specifically with Chukchi Sea villages since 2006,” meets frequently with stakeholders, and supports cultural and community events.

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