Shell, Statoil get OK to do Chukchi oil surveys
* Granted approval to conduct seismic surveys
* To operate among protected marine mammals
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Aug 6 (Reuters) - With key federal permits issued on Friday and new authorization from a federal court, Royal Dutch Shell RDS.A and Statoil (STO) have been granted approval to conduct seismic surveys and other tests in the potentially oil-rich Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska, company officials said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on Friday issued permits to both companies allowing them to operate among protected marine mammals, the company officials said.
Permits came a day after U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline issued an amended order clarifying the broad-ranging seismic surveys planned by Statoil and the shallow-hazard surveys and scientific research planned by Shell are allowed to proceed in the Chukchi even though broader oil exploration is suspended there.
Shell is now planning to proceed with its shallow-hazard surveys, biological studies and ice-scouring studies, work that had been in doubt before the NMFS permit was issued, a spokesman said Friday.
Action by NMFS and the court allows Shell to conduct work in both the Chukchi, where Shell spent $2.1 billion in 2008 to acquire leases, and the Beaufort, the area off Alaska's northern coast where Shell holds other leases, said Curtis Smith, Shell's Alaska spokesman.
"We're moving forward with marine surveys," Smith said. "It's obviously less than the full program we had planned for 2010. But it's important work which we hope will lay the foundation for what could be a development scenario that, hopefully, one day will mean a production scenario."
Shell had planned to drill up to three wells this year in the Chukchi and two in the Beaufort, but this year's drilling was halted by the Obama administration in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.
A Statoil official said that company is now proceeding with its $40 million, two-month Chukchi seismic program.
"That was the last permit that we were waiting for," Martin Cohen, Alaska exploration manager for Statoil. The Norway-based company holds 16 leases in the Chukchi and is working with ConocoPhillips (COP.N) to acquire partnership in 50 more leases, he said.
Beistline on July 21 ruled that the Minerals Management Service was deficient in its planning for the 2008 Chukchi lease sale and ordered exploration work to stop there. But his amended ruling said non-drilling work planned by Shell and Statoil was allowable.
Gov. Sean Parnell, who is seeking to overturn Beistline's original order halting exploration work, said he was pleased that at least seismic surveys will proceed. The judge's clarification "averts the loss of important jobs in Alaska's energy sector, Parnell said Friday.
At Parnell's direction, the state on Tuesday filed a motion asking Beistline to reconsider his original order halting exploration work.
But environmentalists and Native activists who filed the original 2008 lawsuit seeking to block the Chukchi sale still believe that the Shell and Statoil activity should remain on hold, their attorney said
Statoil's three-dimensional seismic surveys in particular threaten marine mammals because they will involve air guns shooting "really loud noise into the sea," said Erik Grafe, attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental law group representing the plaintiffs.
"It's likely to harm bowhead whales, which will be migrating in the area that Statoil is blasting in," Grafe said Friday.
(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)
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