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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- More than fouryears after Royal Dutch Shell paid $2.8 billion to the federalgovernment for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea, a company vessel onSunday morning sent a drill bit into the ocean floor, beginningpreliminary work on an exploratory well 70 miles off the northwest coastof Alaska.

Drilling began at 4:30 a.m., saidShell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith. Shell Alaska vice president PeteSlaiby called it historic.

"It's the firsttime a drill bit has touched the sea floor in the U.S. Chukchi Sea inmore than two decades," Slaiby said in a prepared statement. "This is anexciting time for Alaska and for Shell. We look forward to continueddrilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to addinganother chapter to Alaska's esteemed oil and gas history."

Federalofficials estimate Arctic waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hold26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet ofnatural gas. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Aug. 30 that Shellwould be permitted to begin preparation work at the Chukchi site eventhough the company's spill response barge has not been certified and isnot positioned nearby.

The company isauthorized to drill narrow pilot holes 1,400 feet below the ocean floorand roughly 4,000 feet above a petroleum reservoir.

Shellhas spent upward of $4.5 billion for Arctic Ocean drilling but had beenthwarted from drilling by environmental lawsuit, regulatoryrequirements and short open-water drilling seasons. Despite therequirement to stay out of oil-bearing rock, they were elated to finallybegin work.

"In the days to come, drillingwill continue in the Chukchi Sea, and we will prepare for drilling tocommence in the Beaufort Sea," Slaiby said.

Drillingis bitterly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies havenot demonstrated they can clean up a spill in ice-choked water. Theysay a spill of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in theGulf of Mexico would be catastrophic in a region hammered by climatewarming and home to endangered or threatened marine mammals such asbowhead whales, polar bear and walrus.

Shellofficials say there's little chance of that happening. They are drillingin about 130 feet deep, versus 5,000 at the site of the gulf spill, andwellhead pressure is expected to be far less. Shell also claims itssupport vessels could quickly choke off and respond to a spill.

Smithsaid workers Friday completed mooring of the drill ship, the NobleDiscoverer, in heavy seas with eight anchors that each weigh 15 tons andare staged on the seafloor in a circular pattern. The diameter of theanchor pattern, he said by email, was more than 6,500-feet.

A20-by-40-by-40-foot mud-line cellar will allow a blowout preventer tobe positioned below the seafloor, protecting it from ice scraping thebottom.

The oil spill response barge remains in Bellingham, Wash., and is expected to undergo sea trials over the weekend, he said.

Shell'sother Arctic Ocean drill ship, the Kulluk, is in the Beaufort Seawaiting for the fall whale hunt to end before moving to the drill site.

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