The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement will be conducting a series of possibly unannounced equipment inspections and on-water drills to test the oil spill responsiveness of companies planning to operate off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean.

The tests will be conducted throughout the year in preparation for the approval of oil exploration, drilling and production in the area. Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil company, is waiting to get drilling permits approved  by BSEE, in order to start drilling for oil, which the company said it hopes to do by the summer.

The BSEE previously approved the company's oil response plans for its exploratory ambitions in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

The Chukchi sea basin is said to hold as much as 1.2 billion barrels of oil equivalent. The Arctic in general holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to be developed, according to the US Geological Survey.

The announcement of the real-life drills follows a table-top drill the BSEE and the Alaskan Regional Response Team conducted Thursday that tested BSEE's staff's and Shell's response to a simulated well blowout in the Chukchi Sea, leaking 25,000 barrels of oil a day into the Arctic.

The participants, including the Department of the Interior's Emergency Operations Center, coordinated the use of oil dispersants, and the burning of leaked oil on the ocean surface.

This exercise allowed us to do a large-scale test of how the federal government and industry would carry out many of the key components of a response. It also tested the ability to get crucial data in real-time to officials in Washington, D.C., said BSEE Director Jim Watson. While this exercise gives us confidence in the preparedness levels of our federal, state, and local partners, and Shell, it is only one piece of the spill response puzzle.

Watson said the BSEE will repeatedly test Shell's equipment and response through unannounced drills.

We will hold Shell accountable to its plans, and ensure that all personnel and equipment are positioned and ready before any proposed drilling activities could proceed, Watson said.

The BSEE is still reviewing Shell's drilling permits.