Feds says Shell’s spill containment system works as company seeks Arctic drilling approval

WASHINGTON — Shell has successfully deployed its Arctic containment system in waters near Washington state as it prepares for potential drilling in the Chukchi Sea later this year.

The company didn’t officially need the test, which was conducted over several days in Puget Sound. Its emergency containment system, carried and deployed from the Arctic Challenger barge, already won certification from the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard, years ago.

But the exercises gave Shell Oil Co. a chance to demonstrate the equipment for Coast Guard officials and federal regulators at the Interior Department who will decide whether the company gets critical permits enabling a new round of Chukchi Sea oil exploration this summer.

Shell’s last venture, in 2012, was cut short when the emergency containment system was damaged during a deployment test — preventing the equipment from making it to the Arctic in time to safeguard drilling into oil- and gas-bearing zones more than 1,000 feet below the sea floor. Its certification came later, after repairs.

Originally built in 1976, the Arctic Challenger barge underwent a major retrofit in a Bellingham, Wash. shipyard so it could serve as the launching pad for Shell’s containment system. The system’s centerpiece is a containment dome, meant to be lowered over a blown-out well to capture flowing oil and gas and help funnel it to a nearby tanker.

Assistant Interior Secretary Janice Schneider and Brian Salerno, head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, witnessed the deployment of that containment dome from aboard the Arctic Challenger in Puget Sound.

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“Shell successfully completed its deployment of the containment dome and testing of the dome’s pumping capacity this past week,” said bureau spokeswoman Eileen Angelico. “BSEE continues to work with Shell during its preparations for possible exploration activities to ensure that all activities meet safety standards and are in compliance with federal regulations.”

Schneider and Salerno were on the scene at Shell’s invitation.

“We appreciate the Department of Interior’s and Coast Guard’s interest in observing the functionality of this important asset as we continue to advance our plans to safely explore offshore Alaska,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.

Shell still must secure several government approvals before it can launch a new round of Chukchi Sea drilling.

Read more: Shell’s Arctic drilling plans on track as Obama administration OKs lease sale

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is now reviewing whether the company’s newly submitted exploration plan is complete. Once it is deemed complete and “certified,” the agency has 30 days to decide whether to approve it, deny it or ask for more information.

Separately, Shell also must secure individual drilling permits from the safety bureau.

Shell describes the containment system as one of four potential barriers to a runaway well in the Arctic. Others include heavy drilling muds inside a well that can keep oil and gas from flowing up and out of it and blowout preventers equipped with two shearing rams capable of cutting through drill pipe to seal off the well hole. Shell counts its separate capping stack, like one successfully used atop BP’s failed Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, as another protection.

Arctic drilling critics are not convinced those methods would work in an emergency — in part, they say, because the capping stack and containment system have not been rigorously tested in real-life conditions in Arctic waters.

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