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Misfortune strikes again for Shell Oil rig returning from Arctic

Alex DeMarban,Eric Christopher Adams
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo

A drill rig involved in Shell Oil's inaugural season of Arctic oil exploration briefly caught fire Friday morning in Dutch Harbor, an international port in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, according to the Unalaska Fire Department.

Firefighters responded to calls of a fire at the U.S. Coast Guard docks at 10:22 a.m. Friday, where a plume of black smoke was seen coming off of a vessel, according to Unalaska Fire Chief Abner Hoage. As firefighters approached the docks they received reports that there had also been an explosion aboard the Noble Discoverer, Hoage said.

The rig wasn't actually docked but was still hooked to tugs and its planks were not yet down. Hoage said responding firefighters spoke with the captain, who declined Unalaska fire department assistance since Shell's on-board personnel had the small flame under control.

Curtis Smith, Shell's Alaska spokesman, said the small "flash fire" was put out immediately, adding no one was injured and the ship was never in danger. Smith described it as an engine backfire in the rig stack, a description Hoage compared to a car backfiring. Such fires are common aboard ships and happen when residual gases and fumes, left over in exhaust stacks, combust.

"Ever seen a small flame out of a car when it backfires? This is the same. It is a minor issue. It is not an incident," Smith added.

Others described it a bit differently. Peggy McLaughlin, Unalaska ports director, told KUCB Radio that she felt the blast in her office, about 200 yards away.

"It was almost like a backfire, a ginormous ... backfire is what I would equate it to, but because of the size of the vessel, it was pretty big. And when we looked out we could actually see the smoke coming out of the top of the landing pad there and so it was one of those, 'we need to make a call and make sure it doesn’t get out of control,'" McLaughlin said in the KUCB report.

Shell blazes Arctic trail under intense scrutiny

Shell used the 514-foot ship to launch preliminary well work this summer. It was the first such work offshore in the U.S. Arctic in two decades, and the project has been under intense scrutiny due largely to environmental concerns related to drilling in the pristine Arctic.

Preliminary drilling that did not reach oil-bearing zones began this year. Shell hopes to return next year to drill into deeper zones and find oil.

Shell's program slipped well behind schedule this year thanks largely to delays in completing an overhaul of a unique oil-capturing barge it's required to have on scene before deep drilling. Coastal sea ice that lingered longer than usual and wayward ice floes also helped put the work off track.

The Noble Discoverer is the same ship that drifted on its moorings at Dutch Harbor in July. The event offered Arctic oil drilling opponents fresh evidence that Shell wasn't prepared for unpredictability in a hostile yet pristine climate.

Four months later, the drill rig is back in the Aleutians stealing headlines again. From there it heads to Seward, where the rig will port at the Alaska Railroad dock, Smith said. The Noble Discoverer's sister rig, the Kulluk, should arrive in Dutch Harbor in less than a week. Kulluk began preliminary well work in the Beaufort Sea this year.

Both ships will stay at those locations for an undetermined amount of time this winter, said Smith. 

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com and Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com