Over the last three years, Shell’s Beaufort Sea drilling objectives have become more focused with the acquisition and analysis of additional seismic data, Pete Slaiby, Shell Alaska’s general manager, said in a statement. As a result, the 2007-2009 plan no longer represents Shell’s current drilling approach.

Shell had initially planned to drill nearly a 12 wells over three years at Sivulliq, a prospect in the Beaufort Sea where oil had been discovered, along with other wells at another Beaufort Sea prospect.

The drilling was to have commenced in 2007 and been concluded in 2009, as per Shell’s original plans.

But after a court ruled in November 2008 that federal officials failed to address environmental impacts when they granted the company a permit, Shell said it will not pursue the drill programme in 2008.

Lawsuits challenging the drilling resulted in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals order overturning the MMS decision granting permission for that program.

The lawsuits, filed by environmentalists, native groups and the North Slope Borough, said the US MMS authorized the drilling without adequately reviewing impacts to whales and other marine life.

Shell’s new plan for drilling the Beaufort Sea will be much decreased from the earlier proposed programme, company officials said.

It will extent one year instead of three, use a single drilling rig instead of two and seek to drill two wells instead of four, officials said.

Shell officials have also said they plan to commence exploration drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea in 2010.