Salazar lays Arctic drilling delay at Shell’s feet

If they had, a portion of the drilling could have begun, he said. “They have not been able to get it done. If they had got it done, they may already be up there today,” Salazar said.

The company has already been forced to scale back the scope of this summer’s planned drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The company, which has spent billions of dollars to obtain and develop the Arctic leases, had initially hoped to drill five wells this year.

A Shell spokeswoman said the company believes some drilling will go forward in 2012.

“We remain confident the Arctic Challenger will arrive in Alaska in time for Shell’s rigs to commence drilling into hydrocarbon zones and look forward to making the most of the time that remains in the 2012 open water season,” said spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said in a statement Monday.

She said that progress on preparing the containment barge is steady. “We continue to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard to outline a schedule for final inspections and an on-water deployment that would lead to certification,” op de Weegh said.

Current plans call for Shell to cease drilling into oil-bearing zones in the Chukchi Sea in late September, but other activities could last longer.

The company must clear out of both the Chukchi Sea and adjoining Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast by the end of October, under drilling timelines regulators set based on the estimated arrival of sea ice.

Shell could also seek to conduct more preliminary operations to lay the foundation for wells, so-called top-hole drilling, which would give the company a head start for exploratory oil drilling next year.

“Our goals remain to drill this season and complete as many wells as possible. We will also pursue foundational wells (mud-line cellars/top holes) that would put us well ahead in 2013. The days we spend drilling in 2012 will be meaningful and the data we collect, extremely valuable,” op de Weegh said.