SEATTLE -- A potential new energy frontier opened early Sunday in the U.S. Arctic as Royal Dutch Shell plumbed a drill bit into the bed of the Chukchi Sea, 70 miles off the coast of northwest Alaska.
The oil company, which spent six years and $4.5 billion trying to launch America's first offshore oil production in the Arctic, announced that its Noble Discoverer had anchored northwest of Alaska's North Slope and begun drilling the "top hole" of an exploration well. The work was the first step toward drilling a pilot hole that will go about 1,300 feet deep.
The company will not be allowed to plumb deeper into hydrocarbon deposits until its oil spill containment barge is completed and on site, a step that could come within the next few weeks, or perhaps not until next year. But Shell officials said even the preliminary well preparation will put the project on a good course for completion during the 2013 drilling season.
The work is the first exploratory drilling in the Arctic since the early 1990s -- when far less regulatory scrutiny was placed on the delicate ecosystem of the Far North. The project marks an important milestone for Alaska, where oil production has been declining steadily from the aging oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk on the North Slope.
"This is a big deal. I think it really opens up a new chapter in the oil and gas story in Alaska, and it's coming at a time when, let's be honest with ourselves, people are really concerned about the health of the Trans-Alaska [oil] pipeline," Peter Slaiby, vice president of Shell's Alaska operations, said in an interview Saturday.
"Secondly, this is 1,800 jobs this year. I'm not going to jump into any kind of discussion on where we are, but as a nation, these jobs are important. This is potentially a very, very big thing for Alaska and for the nation," he said.
Drilling of a second well in the Beaufort Sea is on hold pending the aboriginal whaling season of the Inupiat Eskimos of the North Slope. A second drilling ship, the Kulluk, is on hold near Barrow, Alaska, and could also receive preliminary drilling authorization once whaling is completed.
In any case, Shell officials say they are still a decade away from any oil production in the Arctic. This season's drilling is for exploration wells, designed to test the size of the undersea oil deposits.
Production wells would require another exhaustive round of federal approvals and, most likely, construction of a pipeline to carry the offshore oil bounty into the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
Conservationists have said the upcoming drilling program threatens one of the most fragile environments on Earth with the hazards that come with industrial development. An oil spill in the icy waters of the Arctic, they say, could be far more devastating than most offshore disasters seen thus far.
But for Alaska, which in July was overtaken by North Dakota as the nation's second-largest oil producer, the news was overwhelmingly welcome.
"After years of federal permitting and litigation delays, we welcome Shell's progress that will put thousands of Americans to work and lessen our dependence on foreign energy," Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said in a statement.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic. A warming climate and shrinking polar ice cap have made reaching the bonanza increasingly easier, though Shell remains locked into a short summer timetable for drilling to avoid the hazards of operating once the winter sea ice begins setting in.