Democrat pushes for answers on failed test of Arctic spill response system

A top House Democrat is pressing the Obama administration for new details about the government-monitored test of a key Arctic oil spill response system that appeared to be “crushed like a beer can” during a sea trial in September.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the episode — conducted by Shell Oil Co. and its contractors in placid Puget Sound waters as federal inspectors looked on — raises questions about whether the spill containment system could work during an emergency in icy, turbulent Arctic conditions.

“Shell’s unsuccessful test in Puget Sound raises new questions about the company’s ability to successfully drill offshore in the Arctic and, more generally, about the ability of containment devices to function properly in the harsh Arctic environment,” Markey wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has required companies drilling in deep water to prove they can swiftly contain a runaway subsea well. At least two containment systems are available for emergencies in the Gulf of Mexico.

But there is no similar, explicit requirement for exploratory oil drilling in shallow Arctic waters, like the work Shell conducted in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska earlier this year. And no similar system has been deployed in the region before.

The backbone of Shell’s containment system is the Arctic Challenger, a 36-year-old barge that underwent a major retrofit in a Bellingham, Wash. shipyard meant to ready it for emergency use. A containment dome on the barge is meant to enclose a blown-out subsea well and corral any crude spewing out.

After months of construction delays, the first-of-its-kind oil spill containment barge was damaged during certification and deployment tests. While the barge later won the Coast Guard’s certification, it still would need to pass muster with the safety bureau before Shell could use during planned drilling next year.

Government e-mails just released to a Seattle NPR station in response to a Freedom of Information Act request shed more light on what went wrong during the deployment test.

In one message, a top BSEE official described watching the containment dome surface unexpectedly; it “breached like a whale,” the regulator wrote. According to the account, which was provided to Markey’s staff in late September, the dome then sunk, dropping just short of the sea bed. Ultimately, the official said, the top of the dome was “crushed like a beer can.”

The damage was so bad that Shell later admitted the containment system could not be repaired in time to make the two-week trek to its Arctic drilling sites before ice started closing in on the region. As a result, the company was unable to begin drilling into hydrocarbon-bearing zones this year and instead was limited to so-called “top-hole” drilling and preparation work for the first 1,500 feet of its wells.

Company officials anticipate returning to the region to finish those two wells — and work on several others — as soon as allowed next year.

Shell remains committed to ensuring that its equipment and drilling operations proceed safely, said Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska, speaking Wednesday at the Arctic Technology Conference in Houston.

“That is an obligation that we accept,” Slaiby said. “We have set out to make sure that staff and contractors understand that anything less than 100 percent is not an acceptable grade.”

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said containment system repairs are ongoing.

Markey questions whether containment systems could ever be successfully deployed in emergency Arctic conditions, given the problems with the test in Seattle.

“The outcome of the containment dome test, the fact that Shell may have missed warning signals that something was wrong and Shell’s problems using (remote-operated vehicles), which could be required in an Arctic environment, raise troubling questions about whether Shell can drill safely in this harsh and sensitive area,” Markey said.

Other companies, including ConocoPhillips and Statoil, hold leases in nearby Arctic waters and are planning to launch their own exploratory drilling. It is unclear whether they will offer — or be required — to have their own containment systems on site.

When the Interior Department approved Shell’s broad drilling blueprints for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, it said drilling permits individual wells were contingent on the company satisfying the terms of its oil spill response plan, including a system for capping and containing a runaway underwater well.

Conservationists say an oil spill in the region could irrevocably damage the pristine and fragile Arctic ecosystem, with environmental effects eclipsing those caused in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground near Prince William Sound, some 800 miles south of Shell’s planned drilling.

Zain Shauk contributed from Houston