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Ice patches on the Chukchi Sea in summer 2011. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Shell’s Arctic Plan Curtailed by Dome Damage

The aptly named Arctic Challenger—Shell’s* trouble-plagued oil spill recovery barge—has once again demonstrated how challenging drilling for oil in the Arctic can be in a post-Deepwater-Horizon world.

The barge, which underwent a multi-million-dollar facelift in a Bellingham, Washington, shipyard, was retrofitted to serve as the flagship of Shell’s “state of the art” Arctic containment system. Yet during the first test of the oil spill recovery dome in Puget Sound on Saturday night, the barge crew managed to ding up the dome as they attempted to place it over a mock runaway well—ending any hope that Shell would drill into potential pay dirt on any of its Arctic leases this year.

Instead, the company says it will drill as many “top-holes” as it can before sea ice sets in by late October, laying the groundwork for the 2013 drilling season.

“It’s a disappointment that this particular system is not ready yet,” Marvin E. Odum, the president of Shell Oil, told the New York Times. “We’ve made the call that we are better off not drilling in hydrocarbons this year.”

It is just the latest in a series of mishaps that have hampered Shell’s drilling efforts and left many critics doubting if the company is ready to drill in one of the harshest—and most pristine—environments on the planet. Earlier this summer, Shell’s 514-foot (157-meter) Liberian-registered drill ship, Noble Discoverer, drug its anchor during a blow in Dutch Harbor and drifted close to shore in front of the Royal Aleutian Hotel. The ship was undamaged and on September 9,  began drilling in the Burger Prospect some 50 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. A day later, however, it had to pull out and abandon the site to avoid an ice floe.

The 38-year-old Arctic Challenger—a former barge with so much new superstructure it now looks a bit like a floating casino with a crane— has been beset with electrical and safety equipment issues and delayed Shell’s advance into the Arctic because it did not  pass U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Towed by ocean tugs, the barge houses 72 workers, the containment dome, as well as other oil spill response equipment. It’s supposed to have enough capacity to store spilled oil for 24 hours until Shell’s oil spill tanker reaches any spill site. It was a voluntary piece of equipment offered by Shell, but as it is part of the drilling permit and plan,  Shell has not been allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones before it is on-station off Barrow. It remains in a repair dock in Bellingham, Washington, awaiting Coast Guard approval.

At a conference in Alaska a few weeks ago, Shell’s vice president for Alaska, Peter Slaiby, stressed that the Challenger was a redundant piece of equipment—a fourth line of defense against a blow-out that would only come into play after drilling mud, a beefed-up Blow-Out-Preventer, and a ready-made capping stack that was already on site had all failed. (It was a capping stack that eventually closed down BP’s runaway Macondo well in 2010, but it had to be built on the fly as oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico; Shell agreed to have a stack ready in the Arctic, and it is currently on a ship stationed between the Beaufort and Chukchi drill sites.)

But the details emerging about the failed containment dome test do little to bolster Shell’s assurances. According to anonymous sources who spoke to the L.A. Timesthe L.A. Times, the dome was damaged when Shell workers attempted to lower it over weights that had been dropped to the sea floor to simulate the site of a runaway well. According to the L.A. Times, one of the dome’s eight winches stuck on the way down. When a min-sub, known in the industry as Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, was sent down to inspect the problem, it became entangled in the dome’s cables and eventually sank. Divers were then dispatched to recover the inoperable dome.

Shell’s statement on the incident emphasized the care it was taking in proving its gear (“We will not conduct any operation until we are satisfied that we are fully prepared to do it safely,” it said.)

But the company’s critics were quick to pounce on the latest setback. “This incident as well as others over the summer show that Shell is clearly not prepared to go forward in a safe way,” says Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska Project for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, one of three environmental groups challenging Shell’s air permit, drilling permit and oil spill response plan in court. “If Shell has such an incident in the calm waters of Puget Sound, what happens when one of those arctic storms whips up?”

The ultimate lesson? The Arctic gives up its treasures slowly.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.