The first vessel in Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet has embarked from Washington state to Alaska ahead of its planned resumption of oil and gas exploration in the remote region this summer, the company said on Thursday.
The Arctic Challenger, an oil spill containment barge, had left Bellingham, north of Seattle, and was headed toward Dutch Harbor, in Unalaska, off mainland Alaska, Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino said. She did not know when it would arrive.
The Arctic Challenger is one of about two dozen support vessels that will accompany drilling rigs slated to resume a search for fossil fuels as soon as next month in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, among the world’s most ecologically sensitive regions.
Environmental groups contend that an oil spill in the area, which is covered by vast layers of sea ice and prone to rapid changes in weather conditions, would be destructive to the ecosystem and extremely hard to clean up.
Shell’s plans to return to the Arctic and its decision to temporarily house a drilling rig in Seattle has prompted weeks of protests at the city’s port, with demonstrators both on land and water trying to block access to the vessel.
Activists have also vowed to form a flotilla to prevent the rig from leaving the city’s Elliot Bay for the trip north.
Shell did not say on Thursday when that rig, the Polar Pioneer, would attempt to depart. Activists have said they expected the rig to leave as soon as this week, and a shipping source said it would likely be by the end of June.
Shell had to pull out of the Arctic in 2012 after a rig ran aground. The oil giant is still awaiting several federal permits before it can go ahead with its plans to return.
The company contends it is prepared to safely resume drilling and could clean up 90 to 95 percent of any oil spilled.
A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld Shell’s oil spill response plans, rejecting arguments by several environmental groups that federal approval of the plan was capricious.
On Tuesday, Shell’s plans to resume exploration in the Arctic cleared another legal hurdle when President Barack Obama upheld a 2008 Arctic lease sale. The Interior Department will now consider the company’s drilling plan.
(By Victoria Cavaliere, Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)