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.