Shell drilling rig leaves Seattle for Alaska waters

WASHINGTON — Shell’s contracted Polar Pioneer drilling rig began its 12-day trek to Alaska on Monday, though Arctic drilling opponents in kayaks were trying to block its exit from Puget Sound.

By early afternoon, at least 24 protesters had been detained by the Coast Guard and fined $500 for violating a 500-yard safety zone around the rig. The rig itself also stopped moving Monday afternoon, after a slow initial transit that saw two tugboats pulling the Polar Pioneer away from its months-long perch at Terminal 5 in the Port of Seattle.

It is headed first to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a waypoint on its journey to the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska.

There, in shallow waters about 70 miles from the coast, Shell plans to use the Transocean Polar Pioneer and the drillship Noble Discoverer to bore two exploratory oil wells into its Burger prospect.

The Discoverer is expected to depart the Puget Sound region in coming weeks, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

The company must wait until July 1 and secure four federal authorizations before it can launch any drilling.

Read more: Shell wins two more permits for planned Arctic drilling campaign

The outstanding permits include two “incidental harassment” authorizations allowing Shell’s planned activities to disturb marine life in the area, and two drilling permits, now under review at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Shell’s last Arctic drilling bid, in 2012, was marred by a drifting drillship, engine troubles and air pollution violations even before its now-scrapped Kulluk rig careened into an Alaska island.

This time, Shell executives say they are much better prepared to manage the complicated operation. Maritime experts were brought into the program. Key responsibilities have been more evenly distributed. Oversight of contractors has been intensified.

“We remain committed to operating in a safe, environmentally responsible manner and look forward to exploring our Chukchi leases in the weeks to come,” Smith said.

Wary environmentalists note they have no way to independently assess Shell’s operations, including just how much the company learned from mishaps in 2012.

An independent audit of the company’s management systems — ordered by the Interior Department in 2013 — has not been publicly released to Greenpeace and other groups that have requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.

Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace US, praised protesters in the Pioneer’s path.

“Every minute that brave protesters can delay Shell’s Arctic drilling plans is another chance for President Obama to reconsider his disastrous approval of oil drilling in Alaska,” she said. “The president’s decision on Arctic drilling will be a dealbreaker for his climate legacy, but it’s not too late for him to stop this catastrophe before it starts.”

The Polar Pioneer briefly stopped moving through Washington state waters around midday local time.

A Coast Guard spokesman said Shell contractor Foss Maritime was working to change tow lines and vessels for a longer transit into unpredictable Alaskan waters.

Read more about Shell’s big Arctic gamble in The Houston Chronicle.