The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) will pay the extra cost to have inspectors on board the Kulluk and Noble Discovery drilling rigs, which Shell has proposed to use for its offshore Alaska drilling plans this summer, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure safety, BSEE Director James Watson told reporters in a conference call on Thursday.
Having inspectors on board around the clock is a bit unique, but has been done in the Arctic in the 1980s and 1990s when drilling activity previously took place in the Arctic area. Because of difficulties in transporting inspectors to and from the rigs, the inspectors will stay on board for two to three weeks at a time.
While the agency has had support from Congress and the Obama administration in this particular fiscal year, Watson said that funding for something like this could be hard to get.
"We see it as an opportunity to gather knowledge and will provide a really good experience for the inspectors that are deployed," Watson said, noting that the drilling season for offshore Alaska is fairly short.
The director acknowledged that the funding to pay overtime for inspectors could not be sustained forever, depending on how Arctic oil and gas activity develops in the long-term.
But by that time, there will be more infrastructure for deploying from shore," Watson said.
BSEE has an excellent relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard, Watson said, adding that the Coast Guard District Commander in Seattle has been very involved in the inspections. The Coast Guard's district in Juneau has also made an extra effort to prepare for any type of environmental incident with 200 people trained and ready to respond to a near-shore oil spill.
The capping stack will be tested offshore Portland or Seattle in the same subsea conditions in which drilling would take place, Watson said. Well completion operations will take place before the ice season begins offshore Alaska, so drilling would not be taking place at the same time that ice is present.
Watson spoke with reporters via conference call after completing a visit to the Portland, Ore., shipyard to see Shell's capping stack. The director also met with Shell executives and the crew of the Kulluk, one of two drilling rigs that Shell will use for its offshore Alaska drilling plans.
Inspectors have been aboard both the Kulluk and the Noble Discovery, but have not yet made any decisions on the drilling permits. No specific dates have been set for various tests and inspections for the drilling rigs and capping stack, Watson said.
"We don't have a specific schedule but will keep people informed when tests are concluded," Watson said.
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