Vessels heaving Arctic rigs to Asian shipyards for repair

A massive oceangoing dry-dock is hauling an Arctic drillship to Korea for repair, and another rig is about to make a similar journey, after problems surfaced during a Shell project north of Alaska.

Cosco Shipping’s Xiang Yun Kou, a 708-foot-long hauler, began heaving the drillship Noble Discoverer to Asia on March 9. Noble Corp., has not said what shipyard will be tasked with repairing the ship’s propulsion systems and other deficiencies identified by the Coast Guard last November.

Meanwhile, the 712-foot Xiang Rui Kou is en route to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to pick up Shell’s Kulluk conical drilling rig, which ultimately is bound for Singapore. The 29-year-old Kulluk ran aground on an Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve, causing hull and electrical damage.

The Xiang Rui Kou is expected to arrive by March 18. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the Kulluk was being prepared for its journey.

“Crews are currently lightering the remaining fuel on board and securing any remaining open spaces,” Smith said.

Both Chinese heavy tow ships are engineering marvels in a very specialized class of vessels that have been called into action to transport massive oil facilities to the Gulf of Mexico and to heave long-decommissioned warships across the seas. BP’s Thunder Horse platform was carried to the Gulf by a heavy-lift vessel. The heavy-lift Mighty Servant carried Noble’s Clyde Boudreaux from Brazil to Australia two years ago.

The heavy-lift vessels are designed to pick up such heavy cargo by submerging their main decks and then surfacing under the ships to be transported, once they have been floated over the cargo deck.

Coast Guard inspectors watched as the Xiang Yun Kou picked up the Discoverer a week ago. The Coast Guard also established a temporary, 500-yard safety zone around the Xiang Yun Kou while it was in Alaska’s Resurrection Bay and being transported out of the area.

Shell has said it will not seek to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska once ice clears this year, which will allow time for the two ships to be repaired and for the company to refine an emergency oil spill containment system designed for its Arctic oil venture. Shell spokesman have said they plan to try again in 2014.

Although Shell owns the Kulluk — which had a Noble Corp. drilling crew while it was boring an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea last year — it has leased the Discoverer used in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell was forced to constrain its 2012 operations to such so-called “top-hole drilling” of only the initial 1,500 feet of its Arctic wells when its oil spill response system could not win approval and get to the area before ice started encroaching. The company experienced other high-profile blunders: The Noble Discoverer drifted out of control briefly near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, last July, and the Environmental Protection Agency cited the company for violating the terms of air pollution permits while hunting for Arctic oil.

Track record: Coast Guard documented 16 deficiencies on Arctic drillship

Shell has stressed that the episodes were maritime incidents unrelated to Arctic drilling.

In response, the Interior Department launched a high-level review of the 2012 Arctic drilling program, meant to guide future decisions about drilling in the region.