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Shell's Arctic drilling rig inspected for damage after drifting 'incident'

Alex DeMarban

The damage to Royal Dutch Shell's reputation may be the biggest consequence of the misstep in Unalaska Saturday when a massive ship that could soon be drilling off Alaska's northwest coast apparently dragged anchor before ending up on shore or near it, depending who you ask.

Shell faces intense scrutiny as it seeks to conduct exploratory drilling in an Arctic Ocean frontier, where massive risk comes with a potential undersea oil bonanza. That makes the incident involving the 500-foot Noble Discoverer drill rig all the more puzzling. 

"Was somebody on watch busy with Facebook? Nobody looked out a porthole to notice the vessel’s position had changed? No Shell worker on shore looked out their hotel window and said 'Whoa!' " wrote James Mason in an editorial published in the local Dutch Harbor Telegraph.

The event resulted in no pollution or injuries, according to the Coast Guard. At this point, the ship itself doesn't even appear to be scuffed. Many, therefore, might call it a non-incident.

Except the world is watching.  

Shell is conducting its own review and will use what it learns to prevent future incidents. The Coast Guard is also investigating. And federal regulators will take a look.

Mark Fesmire, Alaska director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said two engineers with the agency will arrive on the island Sunday evening. They were already headed to Unalaska for other Shell-related business but will ask questions about this latest incident, he said.

Will there be a full-blown review by the agency? Fesmire referred that question and others to the agency's media headquarters in Washington, D.C., where officials couldn't be reached Sunday. Environmental groups are suing the agency for approving Shell's oil-spill response plans.

Fesmire noted that the mooring system that was in use in Unalaska is "significantly" different than the one that Shell plans to use while conducting exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean. 

Curtis Smith, Alaska spokesman for Shell, said the Noble Discoverer was employing one "light anchor" on Saturday when it drifted. He didn't know the weight of that anchor, but said it was lighter than the eight multi-ton anchors that will be employed when the ship is drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast. Those eight anchors, attached by hundreds of yards of massive chain, will encircle the ship in what's called a "watch pattern," after a wristwatch. 

The goal, of course, is keeping the ship as stable as possible while drilling occurs. 

Smith said such a wide distribution of anchors is impossible to employ in the busy maritime port of Unalaska, also referred to as Dutch Harbor. The famed fishing headquarters 800 miles southwest of Anchorage is a key stopping point for huge freighters traveling between Asia and North America, as well as a hub for the Bering Sea fishing and crabbing fleets that supply a good portion of the world's seafood.  

"The thinking now is that the anchor slipped, but there's an investigation under way," Smith said. "If that is what happened, we'll carry on and dig deeper and make sure this doesn't happen again, not just in Alaska but anywhere in the world." 

The U.S. Coast Guard said a remotely operated submersible deployed by Shell inspected the ship's hull Sunday and saw "no evidence of damage," according to Petty Officer Sara Francis, a spokeswoman. The Coast Guard will view the video footage from the submersible as part of its investigation, she said.

The Coast Guard questioned the crew about whether or not the vessel may have actually grounded, rather than just coming extremely close to shore.

"We asked them more directly," Francis said Sunday. "They said they didn’t feel any impact or vibrations associated with grounding."

Also, divers hired by Shell will take another look. They are expected to arrive in Unalaska on Monday, said Smith. 

The incident began when the Noble Discoverer sat anchored about 175 yards from shore on Saturday. It began moving in winds up to 35 mph. It had been anchored near the city of Unalaska, population 4,300, in a spot where large commercial ships routinely anchor, Francis said.

The Discoverer and other vessels in Shell's fleet are staged in that island city before they push through the Bering Strait, Alaska's gateway to the Arctic Ocean. Shell plans call for the Discoverer to eventually drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi 70 miles off Alaska's northwest coast. The Kulluk drill rig, also in Unalaska, plans to drill up to two wells in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northeast coast. 

Though the Coast Guard has said reports indicate no grounding, Unalaska residents who were on scene say the ship beached. Photos published in the Dutch Harbor Telegraph indicate at the very least the Noble Discoverer came very close. A Shell-contracted tug, the Lauren Foss, had to pull the Discoverer away from land.

Groundings near Unalaska over the last 15 years have proven deadly and bad for the environment. Wrecks with crew deaths and oil spills have included the 368-foot Kuroshima in 1997 and the 730-foot Seledang Ayu that smashed into two pieces in 2005.

Interestingly, Shell's Tor Viking II tug helped rescue one freighter that was adrift in the area in winter 2010, the 740-foot Golden Seas, averting a tragedy despite towering swells and vicious wind. At the time, Shell ships were also in Unalaska waiting for the chance to drill, an effort that was stymied because regulators issued a drilling moratorium following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico earlier that spring.

That moratorium has been lifted, and Shell has spent billions on its effort to drill in the Arctic. The company faces short working seasons because it must stop drilling into known hydrocarbon zones before the sea ice returns in the early fall. But the Discover's recent issue isn't expected to delay the company at all.

Francis, with the Coast Guard, said precautions will be taken to prevent the ship from moving again.

The Lauren Foss tug vessel is now attached to the Noble Discoverer at all times, just in case the mooring comes loose again, she said. It will remain that way until the vessel ties up to the city pier in preparation for the dive team to examine the hull.

Major conservation groups -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- pounced on the event, issuing doomsday emails indicating that the problem spells greater trouble for Shell in the open Chukchi, where winds can be much more intense than they were in Unalaska Bay on Saturday. 

"Shell can't keep it's drill rig under control in a protected harbor, so what will happen when it faces 20 foot swells and sea ice while drilling in the Arctic?" said Jackie Dragon from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza. The group says its ship is headed to the Chukchi to study "marine habitats" where Shell hopes to drill this summer.

Oceana's Michael LeVine said the group is glad everyone on the Discoverer is safe, and added that the event shows the company is not ready to drill in the offshore Arctic.

Obstacles have dogged Shell in recent weeks. Sea ice choking the Bering Strait and the drilling prospects has delayed drilling plans: Shell could have been drilling July 1 if conditions had been different. Also recently the company has faced potential problems arising with air permits and a hiccup over certification of an oil-spill containment barge docked in Washington state.

Ben Anderson contributed to this report. Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com and Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com