Port Officials Call For “Tweaks” to Shell Moorage Plan

As Shell tries to chart a course back to the Arctic this summer, the company is looking for new space to store its drill rigs in Unalaska.

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Shell has asked the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to sign off onthree moorage sites for the Noble Discoverer and the Polar Pioneer — all on on state-owned tidelands. If they’re approved, the rigs could cycle through Wide Bay, Nateekin Bay, and the edge of Summer Bay until 2019.

Shell declined to comment through a spokesperson. But port personnel in Unalaska say some of those spots are less than ideal.

Shell wants to use its Noble Discoverer drill rig to explore the Chukchi Sea this summer. (KUCB)
Shell wants to use its Noble Discoverer drill rig to explore the Chukchi Sea this summer. (KUCB)

Summer Bay sees heavy traffic from cargo ships. And marine pilot Rick Entenmann says the 500-meter safety zone that Shell is requesting around its rigs may not leave much space for tugboats and barges to get past the entrance to Nateekin Bay.

“So we’d like to maybe move that position — maybe tweak that a little bit more towards the Broad Bay area and Wide Bay,” Entenmann says. “Get him out of the way. Because it’s going to be a visual [thing] too. You know? ‘What the heck is that. How long is that going to be there?’”

It’s not clear how long the vessels would stay in Unalaska. Shell didn’t intend to keep either of its Arctic rigs in port back in 2012. But heavy sea ice and permitting delays kept the fleet tied up in Unalaska for more than a month.

During that time, the Noble Discoverer broke free from its moorage in Unalaska Bay, grabbing national headlines in the process.

Shell isn’t looking to use that spot again. But after the issues the company faced on its last Arctic expedition, Shell sent several employees to Unalaska to hammer out new anchorages.

Ports director Peggy McLaughlin says that meeting took place just over a year ago.

“You know, I think that Shell made the effort to come out and communicate and to work with local government and work with local industry to come up with the best possible solutions,” McLaughlin says. “Somehow — in the mix-up and the time lapse between then and now — some of those priorities have been lost in translation.”

There’s also been turnover in Shell’s ranks. McLaughlin says she’s asked for another meeting with the oil company later in the week to discuss their moorage proposal.

Alaska’s DNR will be taking public comments on the plan through February 24. They can be submitted in writing to the Division of Mining, Land and Water at 550 West 7th Ave, Anchorage, AK 99501. Questions should be directed to natural resource specialist Candice Snow at candice.snow@alaska.gov or (907) 269-5032.