Shell says it has never had a significant spill or incident in 30 years of leading-edge work in deep water, which is inherently more risky because of the high pressures.
"Planning the right well and then drilling the well right," is how Shell managers put it time and again.
Shell's Alaska leases are all in relatively shallow water, no deeper than 150 feet. If its prospects hold the vast amounts of oil that Shell hopes, it plans to build miles of subsea pipelines to transport the crude to shore, then more pipeline on land to get it into the trans-Alaska pipeline.
"Our goal is zero harm to the environment. Zero harm to people. Safety is ingrained in every ounce of the business that we do," said David Lawrence, Shell's executive vice president of exploration and commercial development.
Shell expects employees to intervene if they even suspect something is going wrong, executives said. No gain is worth rushing a project at the expense of safety, they say.
"I'm not paid enough to take those risks. I won't take those risks. I won't let people who work for me take those risks," said Pete Slaiby, Shell's vice president for Alaska. Like many of the company's executives, Slaiby has spent his whole career with Shell in spots all around the world.
The company has a long history of competent work in the Gulf of Mexico, and will tap into the same expertise for Alaska, executives said.
But Shell's record is not unblemished. There have been spills and environmental violations, according to critics, government records and news accounts.
In the Third World oil regime of Nigeria, the company has been accused of serious spills, human rights abuses and missteps that contributed to violence and the deaths of agitators there.
Shell is no different from other major oil producers in its relentless pursuit of profits and commitment to stockholders, critics say.
To industry watchers, Shell's performance in challenging offshore operations is good, but not perfect.
"They are one of the industry's most credible offshore operators, bar none, with a very long track record," said Mark Gilman, a New York oil analyst with The Benchmark Co.
"It's not an unblemished track record. But then again, in the industry, virtually no one's track record is unblemished, either financially or environmentally."
One former top engineer for Shell who went on to become a famous academic and expert on risk says it's up to government regulators to keep a close eye on oil company operations.
Even after BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout last year in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. regulation still trails countries like Norway and the United Kingdom, said Robert Bea, the former Shell engineer and retired University of California-Berkeley engineering professor.
Everyone with oil and gas interests in the high Arctic will be watching.
"If we do this one right ... resource development can continue," and Shell will be justly proud, Bea said. "But if we do it wrong, we're going to be - I'll call it sorry - for a long time."
In Louisiana, Shell has made a name for itself as both an industry pioneer and savvy corporate citizen.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, organizers of the treasured Jazz Fest didn't think they could pull it off that next year. In stepped Shell.
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