A damaged icebreaker that is critical to Shell’s Arctic drilling campaign is set to be repaired in Portland, Ore., rather than in Alaska, potentially delaying the company’s work on an exploratory oil well in the Chukchi Sea.
Shell Oil Co. officials said Monday they were still hoping to launch drilling this month at the firm’s Burger prospect 70 miles off the Alaska coast. But it was unclear whether federal regulators would allow the activity, since the damaged vessel was supposed to keep ice from intruding on Shell’s planned drill site and supply equipment in case of an emergency.
The decision ends a week-long drama over the fate of the MSV Fennica, after a meter-long gash appeared in its hull July 3, soon after it departed the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor for the Chukchi Sea.
Arctia Offshore, which owns the ship, Shell and the classification society Det Norske Veritas had contemplated repairs on site, but opted to go for more substantial work with specialized steel at a Vigor Industrial shipyard in Oregon because of the vessel’s long-term role ramming through ice-clogged waters around Finland.
“While we believe interim repairs could be made in Dutch Harbor, our preference is to pursue a conservative course and send it to a shipyard where a permanent fix can be performed,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. “We do not anticipate any impact on our season, as we don’t expect to require the vessel until August.”
The Fennica is one of two icebreakers in Shell’s Arctic fleet, but the Fennica is unique in that it holds a capping stack designed to fit over a damaged well in an emergency, and carries equipment set to be deployed in case of an oil spill.
When a specialized containment dome was damaged and unable to safeguard Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling operations, federal regulators allowed the company to do initial work on its planned wells and bore roughly 1,300-foot “top holes” at the sites, But Shell was barred from penetrating deeper, into zones that could hold oil and gas.
The company is hoping to replicate that approach this year, since the Fennica repair could sideline it for several weeks. Just the trip to Portland could take eight to 10 days.
If regulators agree, Shell would be able to build the foundation of one of its planned Chukchi Sea wells, beginning by excavating a 20-foot by 40-foot hole — a “mud-line cellar” — in the seabed to accommodate a critical emergency device known as the blowout preventer.
But it is unclear whether Interior Department officials now vetting Shell’s application for permits to drill would agree to that, given that the company’s government-approved exploration plan dictates that the Fennica will help keep icebergs at bay and a separate oil spill response plan says it would be put to use in an emergency, even if the capping stack is not required.
“Shell’s plans — and the government’s approvals of them — are premised on having two icebreakers,” said Michael LeVine, Arctic senior counsel for Oceana. “The icebreakers are needed to prevent spills from drilling operations and from vessels, and there is no suggestion that any activities can occur safely without both.”
Offshore drilling critics say the Fennica damage illustrates the potential pitfalls in trying to mount a major industrial operation in remote Arctic waters that are plunged in darkness and covered in ice much of the year.
Greenpeace Arctic spokesman Travis Nichols said Shell “and its contractors have fostered a culture of negligence and corner-cutting that is inviting disaster at every turn — despite the global scrutiny this project has.”
The Coast Guard is still investigating what gouged the Fennica, but a government survey of the ocean bottom documented shallower-than-charted areas along the vessel’s route away from Dutch Harbor.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday that preliminary data from that survey shows “there are certain rocky areas shallower than (30 feet) and one as shallow as (22.5 feet).” No unexpected objects or obstructions — such as anchors or debris — were detected in the preliminary results, NOAA said.
The shallow areas — close to the Fennica’s draft of 27 feet — had not been detected by the last survey of the area, in 1935.
But even without that new information, critics said Shell should have sent the Fennica on a slightly longer route around a nearby Alaska island that would have kept it in deeper water — giving it far more under-keel clearance and greater room for error. Some of the charted depths in the Fennica’s apparent path gave it just four and a half feet — or seven and a half with high tide at the time it traveled.
Read more: Damaged Arctic icebreaker’s route questioned
Shell’s Arctic drilling plans have already been curtailed, most notably when the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that existing regulations designed to protect walruses and other marine mammals required a 15-mile separation between simultaneous drilling operations. Shell had planned to use the Transocean Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer to simultaneously bore two wells that are about nine miles apart.
Environmentalists have warned that the same wildlife protections also block Shell from conducting planned ice-management operations near the Chukchi Sea’s Hanna Shoal, an area that teems with marine life and is a prime feeding ground for walruses.
Even without final permits, Shell’s Arctic fleet is mobilized, with some vessels already in the Chukchi Sea. The Polar Pioneer, now in Dutch Harbor, is expected to leave soon for the Chukchi Sea. And the drillship Noble Discoverer arrived in Dutch Harbor on Saturday.