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Shell drillships en route to Arctic Alaska

Alex DeMarban
Shell photo

It's not a mass movement of ships, but after weeks of waiting, pieces of Shell's fleet have begun sailing north from Dutch Harbor to the Arctic Ocean in an effort to reopen the delicate region to exploratory oil drilling.

The Aiviq anchor-handler has begun the long sea journey, bearing some of the massive anchors that will be set to hold the drilling rig Noble Discoverer in place as it drills a well in the Chukchi Sea, Shell spokespeople said Wednesday.

And the ice-breaker Fennica, which will deploy a sound-recorder to establish an acoustic footprint of the anchors being set, also left Dutch Harbor on Tuesday or was about to leave. It will provide baseline data on noise levels that could prove useful as the company tries to minimize disturbance to bowhead and beluga whales and share information with the village subsistence hunters who depend on those animals, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.

"A little movement, but certainly not a surge," is how Smith characterized the departure. Several other ships associated with the company's summer drilling plans, including the Noble Discoverer, remain in Dutch Harbor.

Still, the trickle represents what could be a landmark moment in Shell's years-long quest to return to the little-explored Arctic. From Alaska to Washington, D.C., the company's pioneering and economically risky venture to seek oil in the ice-choked region has received assistance from key lawmakers, unprecedented scrutiny from regulators and a barrage of legal and media attacks from environmental groups and some Alaska Natives who fear an Arctic spill will be impossible to clean up.

Often overlooked amid the controversy is the fact that Shell safely drilled more than 20 offshore exploratory wells in the region more than 15 years ago, before falling gas prices and limited drilling technology made the project uneconomic. A key piece of new, cost-saving technology the company looks to employ, if it finds enough oil, is a permanent at-sea drilling and processing platform that could serve as a hub for tapping multiple wells, Smith has said.

In recent weeks, Shell has amassed a flotilla of some 20 ships at Dutch Harbor, an Aleutian Island fishing port 800 miles southwest of Anchorage that Shell is using as a staging ground, in part because the Arctic lacks a deepwater port.

Dutch Harbor is more than 1,000 miles from the company's Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast. From there, it's another 300-plus miles east across the top of Alaska to the company's Beaufort Sea site called Sivalluq.

Shell had initially hoped to drill up to five wells during a short summer and fall season starting in July, timed to reduce interaction with sea ice that's thickest in winter. But regulatory kinks and lingering ice forced the fleet to sit unexpectedly long in Dutch Harbor. Now the company has reduced its 2012 ambitions. It hopes to drill one well at each site and begin preparatory work on others to pave the way for drilling next year.

Sea ice has cleared at the Chukchi site this week, but access to the Beaufort site remains too frozen-in to allow ships associated with that project, including the circular drill-rig Kulluk, to leave Dutch Harbor.

Key decisions have yet to be announced before drilling can begin at either location. Shell needs modifications to air permits issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Also, the Coast Guard must certify a pivotal oil-spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, a 36-year-old ship still being retrofitted in Bellingham, Wash.

Stability testing of the vessel will happen this week, but final Coast Guard certification can't come until the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) classifies the ship, said Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, head of media relations for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Shell has asked ABS to classify the ship as a mobile offshore unit that can withstand a 10-year storm, a change to original plans to have it classified as a stationary platform that can withstand a 100-year storm.

"Shell remains in communication with ABS to determine how best to class the barge," O'Neil said. "The new proposal required detailed review meetings with respect to the structures and mooring arrangements. New design elements now require additional submissions of data and reviews."

The barge's containment system also must be deployed, tested and approved off Washington's coast, said Kelly op de Weegh, a Shell spokeswoman. That's essentially a large dome that can be set over a leak to direct oiled water to hoses able to draw it to the surface for cleaning.

That's a different apparatus from the super-size-spark-plug-looking capping stack that's already been tested off the Washington coast and gotten a thumbs-up from federal regulators. The capping stack is similar to the gizmo that BP manufactured and deployed weeks after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout to slice through pipe and seal off the spewing well. Shell will have that technology on site and ready to deploy in the unexpected event of a blowout.

Finally, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he has until Aug. 15 to issue what could be the last piece of the puzzle: individual approval for each well.

Smith on Wednesday said he didn't know when other Shell ships would head north from Dutch Harbor. But on deck is the Tor Viking II, bearing more of the eight big anchors that will be locked into the Chukchi seafloor to keep the Noble Discover fastened in place as it drills. That's expected to leave soon, too. Whenever the ships leave, it will take several days for them to arrive on site.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com