Shell is still moving its ships and equipment into the Arctic, even as one of its icebreakers prepares to head back south for repairs. The unexpected crack in the hull of the ship called the Fennica has added a measure of uncertainty to the start of the short Arctic drilling season.
This week both of Shell’s Arctic drill rigs, the Noble Discoverer and the Polar Pioneer, left Dutch Harbor to begin the thousand-mile trip to the Chukchi Sea. Shell Spokeswoman Megan Baldino says the plan, for now, is to get there and wait.
“The rigs, with their associated support vessels, will connect to several anchors that were recently staged over Shell’s Chukchi prospect,” she said.
Shell is waiting for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to decide on the last permits the company needs, the applications to drill. Now that the Fennica is out of the picture for an unknown period, the wait is a bit more fraught. The ship is one of Shell’s ice handlers. It also carries the capping stack, a key piece of response equipment if there’s a blowout. Baldino says federal regulators will decide how much work Shell can do in the absence of the icebreaker.
“It’s our view that drilling can proceed, so in other words we would begin a top hole,” she said, referring to a partial well that stops above the petroleum layer.” But of course we’re going to comply with our permits, and work within the framework of our permits.”
Ten environmental groups have written a joint letter to the Interior Department, saying Shell shouldn’t be allowed to conduct any exploration in the Chukchi without the Fennica.
“All of the plans that Shell submitted and the government approved are premised on the availability of two primary icebreakers to protect the fleet,” said Michael LeVine, Juneau-based Pacific senior counsel for Oceana. “The Fennica is one of them, and the government can’t grant approval to Shell to operate without both icebreakers in the Chukchi Sea.”
LeVine also says the accident that damaged the Fennica shows Shell is taking unnecessary risks. But as Shell describes it, the short trip on July 3 from Dutch Harbor to the location where the damage occurred does not sound inherently risky. The company says the Fennica was in charted waters with a marine pilot on board when the hull struck something that just wasn’t on the chart.
LeVine, though, claims the leased ship was traveling in shallower waters than it had to.
“The choice may have been made by a contractor or a pilot but ultimately those contractors are working for Shell, and it’s Shell that bears responsibility for making sure that all of its operations are safe and responsible,” he said.
The last time Shell drilled off Alaska’s shores, in 2012, one of its rigs ran aground, capping a series of other mishaps. LeVine notes that federal investigators faulted Shell then for failing to see and mitigate risk, and for not properly overseeing the actions of its contractors.
Greg Julian, press secretary for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, says it’s not clear yet when the agency will decide on the applications to drill or how the missing icebreaker affects the plan.
“We’re still evaluating what might be possible for Shell to do until the Fennica can return and at this point it’s not yet determined,” he said.
He said BSEE Alaska Region Director Mark Fesmire flew to Dutch Harbor last week to inspect the capping stack aboard the Fennica and found it is undamaged.