Shell Loses Control Of Arctic Drilling Rig In Alaskan Harbor

Photo: Teresa Derrick-Laxfoss

by Kiley Kroh

Royal Dutch Shell’s preparedness to drill offshore in the harsh and remote Arctic Ocean this summer has been called into question by a series of recent events.

Over the weekend, the company’s drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, appears to have come dangerously close to running aground near Dutch Harbor, where Shell’s fleet has been assembled.  The Noble Discoverer is one of two dozen ships Shell plans to send into some of the most challenging conditions on the planet.  According to the US Coast Guard, the vessel slipped anchor and drifted within 100 yards off shore before being pulled back into deeper water by a Shell tugboat.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The vessel‘s anchor failed to hold and the 514-foot ship began drifting, but its movement was halted when tug boats were called in to assist, Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis told the Los Angeles Times.

“We don’t know exactly what happened yet. We do know that the vessel’s anchor didn’t hold, they began to drift, they let out more anchor chain to slow that drift and called for immediate tug assistance,” Francis said.

Although Shell and the Coast Guard asserted there was no evidence of grounding, onlookers — including longshoreman David Howard and Dutch Harbor captain Kristjan Laxfoss — contradicted this account, saying the vessel was not moving and appeared grounded: “There’s no question it hit the beach. That ship was not coming any closer. It was on the beach.”

Petty Officer Sarah Francis said winds of 27-35 miles per hour likely led to the ship drifting — conditions that are benign compared with the hurricane-force gales, 20-foot swells, and dynamic sea ice the Discoverer could encounter off the North Slope where the company plans to drill offshore.

Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Oil in Alaska, noted both the Discoverer and Kulluk drilling ships will be secured by an 8-point anchor system when operating in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

The incident immediately follows the Coast Guard’s refusal to certify Shell’s oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, because of concerns about the fire protection system, wiring, and piping on the 37 year-old vessel. The Coast Guard also expressed doubts about the barge’s ability to withstand harsh Arctic storms. The containment barge is essential to the fleet as it is designed to deliver oil spill response equipment to the five drilling sites. Without it, Shell would not have access to the equipment necessary to contain an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.

In addition to the extreme and unpredictable weather, there is an alarming dearth of infrastructure necessary to mount a large-scale response effort off the North Slope. As detailed in the Center for American Progress report, Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic, the area lacks roads, railroads, a permanent Coast Guard facility, a major port, or sufficient infrastructure to house and feed a large influx of people.  As a result, Shell has said that its oil spill response efforts will be largely self-contained.  The fact that the company is experiencing problems with this equipment before even reaching the drill sites raises serious concerns about their contingency plan.

Shell’s flotilla will continue to wait in Dutch Harbor – 1,000 miles south of the proposed drilling sites; the closest major port to the North Slope – while unexpectedly heavy sea ice prevents them from making the voyage to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Slaiby, Shell’s VP in Alaska, recently told CNN that the company’s proposed exploration in the Arctic will be the “most complex, most difficult wells we’ve drilled in company history.”

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress.

20 Responses to Shell Loses Control Of Arctic Drilling Rig In Alaskan Harbor

  1. Doug Bostrom says:

    Anybody who knows anything about this subject will tell you the vessel is grounded. The list alone is enough to tell the story.

    The vessel will undoubtedly be inspected, by divers or other means. Will they find a pristine bottom? Not likely. Would the captain of the vessel immediately depend on his rudder, prop and other appendages after they were in that position? No. Will people have been scurrying around the vessel, sounding tanks? Yes.

    How stupid do these folks think we are?

  2. Rlanden says:

    Business as usual in the US energy sector…

    Full steam ahead!

  3. Doug Bostrom says:

    Amending my previous remark, the apparent list -might- be a matter of perspective.

    Better copies of the photo as well as interesting discussion by professionals can be found here:

  4. Len Conly says:

    Here’s a report on the incident from gCaptain with photos.

  5. maryke petruzzi says:

    Stop the drilling in the Artic!!! You can not trust Shell or any other oil drilling company…they don’t care if they destroy so long as they can make a profit…if they have to pay a fine…well so long as they still make money they feel that that is the price they have to pay… they hire people that just don’t care about nature it’s wildlife or the larger community of the human race…and by the way there are plenty of government officals that support oil companies and you can tell by looking at their campaign support from these companies…

  6. Turboblocke says:

    Yes it’s a spoof but funny all the same.

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    How many flashing red lights do you have to go through before…?

    deBuys writing about the Southwest above makes an important point about the prevalence of magical thinking, ME

  8. Heysttopidone says:

    Actually, seeing her aground of the point, as shown in the picture, is quite an easy check.

    Dutch Harbor, Alaska, will have a complete set of marine navigation charts. Navigation charts, show all shoals, safe shipping channels or lanes, tidal hazards and the harbor water depths. Check, the vessels draft at full rated load, time of day with local tides and your answer is simple.

    Say, did anyone notice the extremely poor color choice, of a hull painted “Windows Blue” and arctic white deck livery. That lousy color combination, would be extremely difficult to find in the usual Alaskan summer heavy sea fogs. You can clearly see in the poor short range under a mile visibility conditions shown in the photograph, she is beginning to slowly disappear in the poor day light contrast.

    The Noble Discoverer, was launched in New Orleans in 1976, for use in the hot tropical waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Whilst it may have watertight doors and compartments, as standard fitting for a vessel of her tonnage. I would suspect, given the vessels age and past long operational environment, those water tight door seals are not 100%. In addition, the vessel does not have an Ice1A rating. That is, it is not double hulled, or was constructed with special grade steels for Arctic sea water temperatures, summer or winter. Of the current fleet of around eighty oil and gas drilling ships, there is only one, which is “Ice1A” rated and was launched in June this year. This vessel is now on a shake down cruise.

    In addition, the area of interest for drilling, is notorious for sudden swift and very violent summer storms with rapid temperature drops, originating from around Wrangel Island.

    So many questions and so few answers!

    Or, as the chairman of Shell would say, it seemed like a good idea at the time ‘if we keep our expenses under one million dollars a day, all the New York Wally Street (self bonking/wanker) stock brokers and investment analysts, will sing songs of great praise of “Best is cheap and nasty, cheap and nasty is best”‘!

    Sadly, if things do go wrong, at the end of the day, it will kill quite a few US Coastguard careers! Alas, the real “Peter Principle” culprits responsible, will get a light slap on the wrist, just like BP in the Gulf of Mexico!

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    It was not grounded, it was mud maneuvering.

    Shell have used up their allocation of luck, and they have not even started to drill.

  10. JohnKocalis says:

    Well folks,What we have here is a runaway train called corporations,they are and will destroy this world we live in for a $ or so.
    These are the same people waging the wars against humanity.RUNAWAY TRAIN my friends.

  11. Nick B says:

    Who is monitoring these jokers? They are obviously children playing with outsized and dangerous toys.


  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As they said on ‘Titanic’. There’s important, rich, people who need to get where they are going.

  13. amicus curiae says:

    and the other reason Shells sitting there?
    the tiny detail the damned ice is a bit thick and they couldnt get TO where they plan to drill anyway.
    ie theres icebreakers and ships behind em still getting stuck up that way.
    the agw crap re no ice soon is pure lies.

  14. Chris Winter says:

    “The Noble Discoverer, was launched in New Orleans in 1976, for use in the hot tropical waters in the Gulf of Mexico.”

    So it’s up near the Arctic Circle to save the manatees in case of a spill, right?


  15. Zimzone says:

    Or it could be the heavy sea ice is a consequence of all the coastal ice breaking away from glaciers.
    agw crap, indeed.
    Shell has as much business in the Artic as a snake oil salesman in your bedroom.

  16. Umm… Uh.. if breezes of 27-35 miles per hour are enough to rip anchors, deploy tugs and maybe see it run aground… well I am not sure the can handle the work up there.

    Just asking. What are they thinking?

  17. One thing we can be sure of: Nothing that comes out of an oil company spokesperson’s mouth can be trusted — ever.

  18. Leigh Brodie says:


  19. Rocco says:

    According to industry documents, all bore hole casings will leak, eventually. All. Some later. Some sooner.