Shell says could begin Arctic oil exploration off Alaska in late July

By Eric M. Johnson and Timothy Gardner SEATTLE/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell could begin drilling for oil in the Arctic off Alaska as early as the third week in July, when it expects sea ice to begin clearing, a spokesman said on Monday. The Polar Pioneer drilling rig arrived in Dutch Harbor, in Unalaska, off mainland Alaska, early on Saturday morning and will remain there until ice begins clearing over the area in the Chukchi Sea where the company plans to drill through late September, spokesman Curtis Smith said. "As of today, our in-house experts are forecasting the third week in July will present the first opportunity to begin drilling operations over our Burger prospects," Smith said in a statement. The company was given a conditional green light by the U.S. Department of the Interior in May to return to the Arctic for the first time since its mishap-plagued 2012 drilling season. Assuming necessary permits are in hand, the company's equipment would be in place after the first week in July, Smith said. The 2015 drilling season will include two drilling rigs and at least 25 support vessels. Although the start date is about a week later than the July 15 date when the company is allowed to begin drilling, Smith said it will still amount to an earlier opening than the previous 11-year average by almost three weeks. The drilling plan has become the target of a major campaign by environmentalists opposed to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, where they fear a potential leak would do irreparable damage to a pristine environment home to polar bears and walruses. Environmentalists also say the initial project could increase development of the Arctic and threaten the region's vast layer of sea ice that helps regulate global temperatures. Smith said the drilling window is subject to change, depending on the ice. Meanwhile, activists in Washington state scrambled to mobilize a water-borne protest early on Monday when the second rig, the Noble Discoverer, maneuvered from a port north of Seattle for what Shell said was a planned procedure to calibrate positioning equipment. Activists, who thought the Noble Discoverer was headed to Alaska, called on sympathizers to meet at a ferry dock where they could launch kayaks in a bid to block the rig's path. "Shell's rig was unable to depart Everett and has re-docked due to 'calibration failure,'" protesters wrote. Over past two months, activists have staged frequent demonstrations. A similar flotilla-style protest involving kayaks in Seattle earlier this month failed to block the first rig from departing for Alaska. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Timothy Gardner in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Sandra Maler and Leslie Adler)