ENVIRONMENT

Shell Plans Return To Offshore Drilling In Alaska Next Year After Canceling 2013 Exploration

In this image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows two life rafts sit on the beach adjacent as the conical drilling unit Ku
In this image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows two life rafts sit on the beach adjacent as the conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. The Kulluk grounded after many efforts by tug vessel crews and Coast Guard crews to move the vessel to safe harbor during a winter storm.Calls for federal scrutiny of Royal Dutch Shell PLC drilling operations in Arctic waters swelled Thursday with a request for a formal investigation by members of Congress. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter)

Dec 4 (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell Plc aims to return to Alaskan offshore drilling next July by deploying an upgraded drillship in the Chukchi Sea, while keeping a newly contracted backup drillship ready if needed, according to plans released on Wednesday.

The Noble Discoverer, now undergoing maintenance and upgrades in South Korea, would perform exploration drilling with a containment dome kept on standby in case of spills. Transocean's Polar Pioneer would provide backup.

Drilling at Shell's Burger prospect is set to be carried out from July through October, according to Shell's Integrated Operating Plan.

"We are still putting the building blocks in place for a potential 2014 program," a Shell spokesman said in an email. "Drilling next summer is not a foregone conclusion."

A return would mark a big step for Shell after a troubled 2012 season that galvanized environmental opposition to drilling off Alaska's coast and forced the company to abandon exploration plans for 2013. The Transocean rig replaces Shell's Kulluk, a drillship that ran aground in January while being towed south after completing its work off Alaska.

The Polar Pioneer - costing Shell in the range of $600,000 per day to lease - will be kept on hand to drill a relief well "only in the unlikely event of an incident," according to the Shell plan, which was posted online by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

"The planned 2014 operations may encounter many challenges," the Shell plan, dated Nov. 26, said. "Vast distances, harsh weather and sea conditions, possible volcanic and earthquake activity, and sparse shore-based infrastructure represent some of the considerable obstacles that must be planned for and accommodated."

Shell also said all its drilling operations would be supported by rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, along with ice management vessels and a weather advisory center.

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