Shell Suspending 2013 Arctic Drilling Season

With both of Shell Oil’s Arctic drill rigs headed to drydock for repairs, the company says it’s suspending its 2013 drilling season.

Spokesperson Curtis Smith says the New Year’s Eve grounding of the Kulluk drill rig prompted Shell to reassess its plans.

“This was our decision, and our decision alone,” Smith says. “[It was] based on, among other things, our strong desire to incorporate learning from our 2012 operations, and to ensure that our assets and our employees are really prepared to work again in the Arctic in the future.”

Last year’s drilling season was plagued with problems. The company had trouble getting its oil spill containment barge certified. Then the Noble Discoverer nearly ran aground in Unalaska. The year ended with the grounding of the Kulluk in shallow offshore waters near Kodiak.

But Shell did drill the beginnings of two exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and it plans to finish those in the future.

Alaska’s congressional delegation hailed the decision to suspend operations as a sign that the company is committed to safety.

Environmental groups also praised the decision, but interpreted it differently. Mike LeVine is senior counsel for the ocean conservation group Oceana.

“This announcement, while it comes as no surprise, reflects a crisis of confidence for the company,” LeVine says. “And the government agencies charged with regulating it.”

The Coast Guard, the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department are all investigating aspects of Shell’s Arctic operations, but LeVine called for them to go further.

“The government must take this opportunity to reassess the standards that govern the decisions it makes about our Arctic Ocean resources, the way it makes those decisions, and its oversight of multinational companies that are beholden to their bottom line and have shown clearly they are incapable of operating with the care Alaskan waters deserve.”

Shell will continue to do scientific research in the Arctic this summer, and may also try to do some prep work at its drill sites.

In the meantime, the company is focused on getting its damaged rigs to drydock in Asia. The Kulluk started retracing its route back to Unalaska on Tuesday.

Shell hopes to complete the 800-mile journey in less than 10 days, although that’s dependent on weather.

From Unalaska, the massive drill rig will be loaded onto an even more massive ‘heavy-lift’ vessel. That ship will take the Kulluk to dry dock in Asia for repairs.

The Noble Discoverer is still in Seward, but it will also be picked up by a heavy lift vessel in the near future.

APRN’s Annie Feidt contributed reporting to this story.

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