Shell recruits train for Arctic oil spill

Against the backdrop of Alaska’s snow-topped Chugach Mountains and in the same waters that were spoiled by the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than two decades ago, Shell is training recruits in skills it hopes they never have to use.

The company is putting scores of people through oil spill response training in the Valdez port, ahead of expected drilling in Arctic waters north of Alaska this summer.   If regulators approve the plans, Shell anticipates drilling up to five wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The recruits — mostly men and mostly long-time Alaskans — are learning how to deploy inflatable boom for corralling floating crude and how to suck it up with skimmers once it has been lassoed by the orange booms. They are practicing on the same ships that Shell plans to station around its drilling operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in case something goes wrong.

The flotilla includes the Nanuq and Aiviq, two ice-class oil recovery and supply ships, as well as six oil spill response vessels that will be stationed on them. There also are barges and tugboats for pushing them along.

“In the Arctic, you’ve got to bring it with you if you think you’re going to need it,” said Geoff Merrell, superintendent of emergency response for Shell Alaska. “That’s spare parts, that’s people, that’s consumables.”

On Wednesday, Shell’s trainees were on the open water in the Valdez port, working to deploy boom in a U-shape, so that a barge-mounted skimmer could suck up the crude that pools at the bottom of that U. On board the Nanuq, recruits unwound inflatable boom from giant reels, pumped orange pockets full of air and cast it into the water. Oil spill response vessels holding one end of the boom pulled slowly away, keeping the material taut.  On Thursday, additional drills focused on other boom formations, including a J shape.

At one point Wednesday, two vessels, each holding one end of the U-shaped boom, let too much slack develop. And when the vessels moved in concert with a skimmer-wielding barge, Shell supervisors watching the Nunuq gave them poor marks. “They’re moving way too fast,” Merrell said.

In the oil spill response choreography playing out on the Valdez water, pulling boom too quickly can allow suction to develop and give oil a chance to slip underneath the apron of the boom and escape.

“This is why we practice,” Merrell said.

It was the recruits’ second day working with real boom on the open water. They are now set to spend another two to three weeks learning how to wield the equipment, and if deployed this summer as expected, they will keep practicing in the Arctic.

Steven O’Connor, an Inupiat who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, said he signed up for the job to protect the environment and wildlife valued by his family.

“It’s my back yard,” O’Connor said, noting that his family is from Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, near Shell’s proposed drilling.

“I go fishing and hunting everywhere,” O’Connor said. “I want to make sure it stays clean.”

Shell’s oil spill response planning focuses on removing crude from open water, with limited ice or slush hindering the effort. Critics have said that the even the best techniques for cleaning up spills would be ineffective if an accident happened late in the drilling season and oil ended up trapped below encroaching ice.

But even in the warm, clear conditions — ideal for oil to be corralled and to break down on its own — critics say just a small percentage of floating crude can actually be removed from the water.

Slush can clog skimmers. Nozzles for spraying dispersant can freeze in the cold air. And in <a href=”” target=”_blank”>the last public test of oil spill response equipment,</a> in 2000, ice pushed under boom, making it ineffective at lassoing anything.

Shell’s oil spill response planning depends on manual removal techniques — like the boom and skimming choreography the recruits are practicing — as well as burning oil in place and using dispersants to break it up.

Federal regulators are requiring the company to stop drilling in hydrocarbon zones by Oct. 31 in the Beaufort Sea; regulators are requiring that work to end 38 days earlier in the Chukchi Sea (which would allow time to for emergency drilling of a relief well before ice starts encroaching again).