WASHINGTON — Shell’s drive to resume Arctic drilling this summer has hit another speed bump, with the discovery of a hole in the hull of an ice management vessel meant to safeguard the company’s operations in the Chukchi Sea.
The MSV Fennica was on its way from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to the Chukchi Sea on Friday when a ballast tank leak was discovered by crew members and a certified Alaska marine harbor pilot on board the vessel. It was traced back to a gash about 39 inches long and 2 inches wide.
The 22-year-old icebreaker has since returned to the port in Dutch Harbor and is being examined by marine experts, but it is uncertain how quickly the breach in its hull can be repaired and whether this will delay Shell’s hopes to begin drilling an oil well in the Chukchi Sea later this month.
The Fennica is just one of the 29 vessels in Shell’s Arctic fleet, which includes another icebreaker, the MSV Nordica, and at least two other anchor handlers tasked with helping to keep ice away from the company’s drilling site. But Shell’s contracted Fennica is unique in that it is carrying a critical piece of the company’s Arctic containment system: a capping stack designed to fit on top of a damaged well in case of a blowout or other emergency.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company does not believe the incident will delay the company’s planned Chukchi Sea operations. But, he noted, “any impact to our season will ultimately depend on the extent of the damage.”
Separately, the company is waiting on at least one drilling permit before it can begin boring a new well into its Burger prospect about 70 miles off the coast. Regulators at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement are still scrutinizing Shell’s applications to drill two wells, about 8.9 miles apart.
Shell is already being forced to scale back its plans to drill two of its Burger wells at the same time, following a ruling by the Interior Department that wildlife protection regulations do not allow simultaneous drilling operations within 15 miles.
And the government’s handling of the issue is under fire from environmentalists who say the 15-mile separation requirement compels the Interior Department to rescind its earlier approval of Shell’s broad Chukchi Sea exploration plan and hold off on issuing any drilling permits.
It is not clear what caused the hole in the side of the Fennica’s hull. At the time the leak was discovered, it was moving through charted Alaska waters, having barely left its mooring in Dutch Harbor.
And while those waters are shallow, Shell said the Fennica’s planned route kept it in depths of at least 42 feet. The vessel, which is owned by Arctia Offshore and contracted by Shell, drafts at roughly 27 feet. It is possible the Fennica encountered a shallow-water hazard that has gone undocumented and uncharted.
The government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already was scheduled this week to deploy a ship to the area where the Fennica’s ballast leak was first observed and conduct a survey of the ocean floor.
Marine experts are now examining the Fennica in Dutch Harbor and assessing whether it can be repaired on site or will require more extensive work in a dry dock.
Any significant repair that sidelines the Fennica for the brief Arctic drilling season could require Shell to get a new icebreaker, move emergency equipment off the Fennica and win approval from regulators at the Interior Department because the changes could represent a “substantive” departure from the company’s existing, government-approved exploration plan.
That drilling blueprint details the vessels Shell plans to use and their main missions during normal operations as well as emergencies.
But this is relatively uncharted territory for oil companies and the government agencies that oversee them. Most Gulf of Mexico drilling operations involve a smaller stable of supply ships and a single drilling rig — far from the dozens Shell is employing.
And Interior regulators have discretion in determining what constitutes a “substantive change” to a pre-approved offshore exploration plan. For instance, regulators could determine any replacement vessel is substantively similar to the Fennica — with similar capabilities and air emissions.
To go forward, even with an extensive, time-consuming Fennica repair, Shell probably would have to relocate its specialized emergency capping stack and the A-frame that deploys it to another vessel.
Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw stressed that “Shell will be held to highest safety and environmental standards.
“This includes having on hand the required emergency response systems necessary for each phase of its drilling program,” Kershaw said.
The episode provides fresh fodder to Arctic drilling opponents, who say it invites comparisons to mishaps involving Shell-owned and -contracted vessels during the company’s 2012 operations. That year, before the company began boring wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, its contracted Noble Discoverer drillship drifted near Dutch Harbor. And months after drilling concluded on Dec. 31, 2012, Shell’s Kulluk rig ran aground along an uninhabited Alaska island.
“In just a few days, Shell wants to start drilling for oil in one of the most delicate ecosystems on earth,” said Greenpeace USA spokesman Travis Nichols. “The company clearly hasn’t improved its operations from its nearly catastrophic 2012 attempt to drill in Alaska and so we can expect news like this to continue to come in until the Obama administration finally stops this doomed project from going forward. ”
Shell’s Smith said authorities were promptly notified of the ballast leak and hull breach. Neither the vessel and its crew were in danger, he said, and the Fennica’s ballast pumps continue to perform normally.
Although it is “an unfortunate potential setback,” Smith said, “in no way does it characterize the preparations we have made to operate exceptionally well.”