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OPINION: What has changed to make Shell's new Arctic bid less sloppy than the last?

September 5th, 2014 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

This week, Shell announced it might, possibly, maybe, return to the Arctic waters off Alaska next summer. Lots of details are still unknown or undisclosed about Shell's plans. We do know that they have nixed plans to work in the more eastern Beaufort Sea, which runs across the top of Alaska over the Canadian border. Instead, they will focus on the leases in the northwestern Chuckchi Sea, near Point Lay and Wainwright.

This time around, the plan is to have two drill rigs drilling simultaneously and providing the required backup for each other at the same time, should a disaster strike and there is a need to drill a relief well. This brings up some obvious questions, such as how quickly a drill rig can stop drilling and respond to another location in an emergency.

On the other hand, it seems likely that the response time would be better under this plan than the one submitted in November, which had one of the drill rigs waiting in Dutch Harbor in case it was needed. Not much of a commute there, is there?

Another question people living near these waters might want answered is why Shell is bringing back a vessel that had numerous problems during its 2012 attempt to drill. The Noble Discoverer drill rig's time in Alaska was fraught with difficulties including repeated air pollution violations that cost Shell more than $700,000 in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Things got much worse for the 1970s-era vessel as it returned to Southcentral Alaska in the fall. In Dutch Harbor, the ship drew alarm for it's second time (the first being in July on its way to the Arctic when it drifted dangerously close to shore) when in November a stack backfire caused a "small, residual fire that was quickly extinguished by the crew."

Later investigation revealed that the vessel had a chronic backfire problem. The Chief Engineer suspected it was caused by changes to the ship's exhaust system after the rig's helicopter landing area was installed. But the trouble really hit the fan for this old drill rig when it was coming into port in Seward. A vibration in its propulsion system was so bad that it had to shut down engines and be towed to port.

Once in Seward, a Coast Guard investigation revealed more than a dozen violations, ranging from safety and electrical problems to sludge in the main engine piston cooling system and a propulsion arrangement that kept the vessel from going fast enough to safely maneuver in Alaska conditions without tow assistance. The situation was so bad, inspectors forwarded the charges to the Assistant U.S. Attorney's Office for possible criminal action against Noble Corp. The ship was dry-hauled to Singapore in February on a 708-foot Chinese-flagged heavy-lift ship.

We don't know much about the 279-foot-long Polar Pioneer or the drill rig's ownership and who will be contracted to run it. We also don't know if the infamous tug the Aiviq will return, with its contracted Edison Chouest team after their horrific performance in Alaska waters was documented in a U.S. Coast Guard report following the grounding of the drill rig Kulluk off Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve, 2012.

We don't know what federal regulators are going to do now that they have to rework their entire Environmental Impact Statement for Chukchi leases since the courts found they underestimated the amount of oil likely to be removed and therefor based their initial assessments on a watered-down scenario. Federal regulators must redo their assessment and find that the leases should still move forward before any drilling can happen.

And finally, the latest and greatest standards for operation in Arctic waters must be finalized, though the word on the street is that these standards, which were called for after the calamitous first year of Arctic drilling, will pretty much follow the standards Shell was applying to itself, which, of course, didn't stop any of the accidents from happening.

So, if Shell returns next summer to the Arctic, with pretty much the same set of standards and much of the same archaic equipment, and many of the same sloppy and possibly even criminally negligent contractors, how have we progressed? What exactly is in place today that is supposed to stop this company from taking the same risks it did in 2012? The Arctic says it desperately needs jobs, industry, expansion and infrastructure to survive rising costs of living.

But if Alaska and the United States allow a company to come in and take those sorts of risks in Arctic waters all over again, what are the chances it will end well for the people who live and depend on the waters in the Arctic for their livelihood and sustenance? It behooves everyone, therefor, to do this right, and it's pretty hard to look at 2012 and say that was the right way to do it. What, exactly, is different today?


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