Shell’s Arctic drilling rig arrives to Dutch Harbor

The Polar Pioneer drill rig arrives in Dutch Harbor. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUCB - Unalaska)
The Polar Pioneer drill rig arrives in Dutch Harbor. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUCB – Unalaska)

The Transocean Polar Pioneer, a drill rig contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, has arrived in Dutch Harbor.  The oil company plans to use the port as a hub this summer as part of their exploratory Arctic drilling effort.

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There’s very little opposition in the tiny Alaskan town in comparison to that in Seattle, where some environmental activists went so far as to chain themselves to one of Shell’s Arctic drilling support vessels last month.

When the Polar Pioneer left Seattle, hundreds of protestors turned out in kayaks. They waved signs and tried to keep the drill rig from departing.  But when it arrived nearly two weeks later in Dutch Harbor, a tiny fishing outpost in the middle of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain, it was greeted only by a brisk, nighttime wind.

There are no anti-Arctic drilling signs, no banners, no protestors in kayaks.  Mayor Shirley Marquardt says that’s for good reason.

“You know down in Seattle, there’s harbor boats and rescue boats and people to pull you out of the water all over the place,” Marquardt said. “You don’t have that here. And the water is tremendously brutally cold even in the summer and it doesn’t take much.”

The real reason no one is out protesting is because most people here are working either on fishing boats, or at one of the local fish processors. More fish come through Dutch Harbor than any other port in the nation.

People also work a myriad of other jobs outside of fishing from construction to security.

“We’ve always had a healthy, wealthy place to live because we depend on the sea,”  Susie Golodoff said. She has lived here for 40 years.  She teaches at the school and fishes with a gillnet right out her front door. The resident naturalist in town, she’s the person everyone asks when they want to identify a bird or a plant. She’s not quite sure why her neighbors aren’t more concerned about the oil rig or Shell’s summer plans.

“I’m kind of baffled to tell you the truth. I think part of it is that we’re kind of short term community with people from other places and people just think as far up as their as their next catch delivery, so there’s just a little bit of a disconnect maybe,” Golodoff said.

Currently, giant boats are at sea harvesting pollock, the kind of fish that’s eventually processed into things like fish sticks. Smaller vessels are out targeting species like halibut, and Dungeness crab for fine dining. Trucks are driving to and fro, filled with gravel and construction crews are furiously working on countless projects.

The sight of a giant yellow and blue drill rig towering over emerald green islands and squat gray buildings isn’t new in Dutch Harbor. In 2012, the company brought a different rig here and then sailed it nearly 1,000 miles north to the Chukchi Sea. That mission ended in near disaster when it ran aground.

But no one is talking about that accident or the possibility of something worse. James Buskirk is the captain of the fishing vessel Destination.  He was among a number of people running quick errands at the local grocery and supply store.

“Well, geographically the Chukchi Sea is a long way from the eastern Bering sea where we do all of our fishing,” Buskirk said. “So no, I don’t have any direct concerns. The possibility of an accident is always there whether they’re drilling on land or under water.”

Mayor Shirley Marquardt understands the worst-case scenario, and she and other local officials have met with Shell a handful of times to discuss safety and logistics.

“So, we’ve been able to kind of talk to Shell and their folks and say, ‘You know, we’ve seen this happen before and it didn’t work out so well,’” Marquardt said.

Shell is still awaiting federal approval before it can send the Polar Pioneer and its support vessels nearly 1,000 miles north through the Bering Strait. Until then, the rig is moored just outside the local port as fishing boats chug past to offload their catch and head back to sea for another round.