Shell gets approval for Arctic oil-spill barge


By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Oct 11 (Reuters) - An oil-spill bargethat Royal Dutch Shell Plc needs to support drilling inArctic waters has regulatory approval, even though it has cometoo late for this year's operations, officials from the U.S.Coast Guard and Shell said on Thursday.

Without the Arctic Challenger oil-containment vessel onsite, Shell has been allowed to drill only to shallow depths --"top-hole" drilling that stops thousands of feet short ofoil-bearing geologic zones.

But the Anglo-Dutch company is gearing up for fulloperations next year, in the face of environmental oppositiondue to concerns about the potential risks of Arctic drilling.

After the Arctic Challenger's approval from the AmericanBureau of Shipping over the weekend, the barge won certificationfor seaworthiness from the Coast Guard, according to RearAdmiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska.

Shell began drilling one exploratory well in the Chukchi Seaa month ago. Shell started a second well, in the Beaufort Sea,last week. The program falls short of its original plan to drilland complete up to three exploration wells in the Chukchi andtwo in the Beaufort this year, and a similar number next year.

Yet Pete Slaiby, Shell's Alaska vice president, said thisactivity still marks significant progress. "By the nature ofthese wells, about half the work is in the first 1,500 feet,which is what we are doing this year," he said at a fieldhearing held in Anchorage by U.S. Senator Mark Begich.

Now that the barge has been certified, Slaiby said, Shell ispoised to drill into oil next year, so long as regulatorsapprove that for the operating season starting in mid-2013.

Shell must also complete repairs to the Arctic Challenger'soil-containment dome, which was bent in a mishap that occurredduring a sea trial in Puget Sound last month, Slaiby said. Shellsaid those repairs should be complete next month.

Shell must complete its 2012 drilling by Oct. 31, accordingto permits. But it hopes to get permission for top-hole drillingat more wells by then, Slaiby told reporters after the hearing.

(Writing by Braden Reddall in San Francisco; Editing by SteveOrlofsky)

((braden.reddall@thomsonreuters.com; +1 415 677 2543; ReutersMessaging: braden.reddall.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))