Coast Guard probing cause of gash in Shell-contracted icebreaker

(Marcus Bengtsson/Creative Commons)
(Marcus Bengtsson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON — Shell is still assessing options for repairing an icebreaker that plays a pivotal role in its Arctic drilling program, even as new clues emerged Thursday about what might have torn a meter-long gash in the vessel.

Government surveyors studying the ocean bottom on Wednesday discovered a previously uncharted shoal along the path taken by the MSV Fennica as it traveled away from the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor on July 3.

First reported by Alaska Dispatch News, the shoal may have shaved 11 to 24 feet off the expected 45-foot clearance at the site. The Fennica, a Finnish ship built to be resilient even amid crushing blows from ice, has a draft of 28 feet.

A certified Alaska marine harbor pilot was on board the vessel on July 3, when a ballast leak provided the first sign of the problem. After the icebreaker returned to the port, a 39-inch by 2-inch hole was discovered in the Fennica’s hull.

Read more: Shell’s Arctic icebreaker damaged in Alaska

The Coast Guard is still investigating what caused that breach, spokesman Shawn Eggert said. “We’re not saying the shoal was the cause,” Eggert said.

But a broadcast went out to mariners alerting them to the shoal that was discovered during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey of the ocean floor on Wednesday.

Shell is weighing how to repair the Fennica, following assessments by marine specialists earlier this week. If welding can close the hole on site, Shell may see little delay to its plans for drilling in the Chukchi Sea later this month. But those operations could be significantly delayed — or even derailed — if more substantial repairs are required in dry dock.

There are dry docks relatively nearby, including two in Seward owned by Vigor Industrial, which has previously worked on vessels in Shell’s Arctic fleet. And there are many more further away, in Washington state, but transit and repair time could eat into Shell’s already brief window for drilling.

If Shell wins permits to launch drilling on one or two wells in the Chukchi Sea, it must halt the work on Sept. 28.

Any repairs — whether they are conducted on site or more than 1,000 miles away — could be subject to additional Coast Guard review and inspections.

Donald Moore, the city manager of Unalaska, said evaluations were still underway on the Fennica on late Wednesday.

A gash like the one in the Fennica would be relatively straightforward to repair on site, said Dan Magone, founder of Dutch Harbor-based Resolve-Magone Marine Services.

“I’ve spent my career doing this kind of work. It’s a minor operation,” Magone said. “The only thing big about this job is the amount of oversight and concern” it is drawing.

The Fennica is critical to Shell’s plans as one of two dedicated ice-management vessels and the only one carrying a unique capping stack that can be deployed in an emergency.

Shell is still waiting on drilling permits for one or two wells at its Burger Prospect, about 70 miles off the Alaska coast. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has been vetting Shell’s permit applications.

Even if they are awarded, Shell must wait until July 15 to begin any drilling in the Chukchi Sea. The company is also waiting on ice to clear within 30 miles of its planned wells.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith confirmed that three of its vessels are already at the site, including the second icebreaker in the company’s Arctic fleet, the MSV Nordica. Those waters are clear, but there is still ice nearby.

The most recent cloud-free satellite images of the Chukchi Sea — captured July 4 — show how much ice has retreated from Shell’s proposed drilling sites. Mapping experts with the conservation group Oceana overlaid the coordinates for Shell’s proposed wells over the satellite imagery (below), which shows how much the area has opened up since the company’s June 29 prediction that nearby ice would block it from drilling until late July.

Satellite image showing the location of Shell’s proposed drilling sites in the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic.