Shell charts return to offshore Alaska drilling in July


Dec 4 (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell Plc will returnto Alaskan offshore drilling next July and will deploy anupgraded drillship in the Chukchi Sea, while keeping a newlycontracted backup drillship ready if needed, according to plansreleased on Wednesday.

The Noble Discoverer, now undergoing maintenance andupgrades in South Korea, will perform exploration drilling witha containment dome kept on standby in case of spills.Transocean's Polar Pioneer will provide backup.

Drilling at Shell's Burger prospect is set to be carried outfrom July through October, according to Shell's IntegratedOperating Plan.

The return marks a big step for Shell after a troubled 2012season that galvanized environmental opposition to drilling offAlaska's coast and forced the company to abandon explorationplans for 2013. The Transocean rig replaces Shell's Kulluk, adrillship that ran aground in January while being towed southafter completing its work off Alaska.

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

"The planned 2014 operations may encounter many challenges,"the plan, which is dated Nov. 26, says. "Vast distances, harshweather and sea conditions, possible volcanic and earthquakeactivity, and sparse shore-based infrastructure represent someof the considerable obstacles that must be planned for andaccommodated."

Shell also said all its drilling operations will besupported by rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, along with icemanagement vessels and a weather advisory center.

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