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Shell Oil’s 2012 Arctic Drilling Window Closing

12:08 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

On Monday, Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, wrapping up a trip to Alaska’s North Slope and the offshore Arctic areas where Shell is hoping to drill late this summer, held a press availability:

The opportunity for Shell Oil Co. to drill exploratory wells this year in Alaska’s Arctic is rapidly diminishing and it’s a situation of Shell’s own making, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in Alaska on Monday.

While delays already have led Shell to scale back plans for drilling a total of five wells this year in the Chukchi and Beafort seas, Shell maintained through a spokesman that there’s still time before freezeup to complete some wells and begin work on others.

The main holdup has been transforming a 38-year-old barge into an oil spill containment vessel. Shell also has been dealing with lingering sea ice and challenges with an air emissions permit for a drilling rig.

Salazar spent the weekend in Alaska touring the North Slope and flew some 40 miles over sea ice and water north of Barrow. While he saw significant sea ice, he said that the area around Shell’s most promising prospect, the Burger find in the Chukchi Sea, was clear.

The oil spill containment vessel, now called the Arctic Challenger, is a condition of Shell’s approved exploration plan and must pass Coast Guard inspections and an in-water test before it can be certified for the Arctic, officials have said.

“If they had got it done, they may already be up there today,” Salazar said. “Because the waters in the Chukchi around the so-called Burger find are in fact already open. So it’s not a matter of ice. It’s a matter of whether or not Shell has the mechanical capability to be able to comply with the exploration effort that had been approved by the government.”

I wrote here last week that the “Chances of Shell Oil Drilling in Arctic in 2012 [are] Diminishing by the Hour.”  It didn’t seem as obvious then as it might seem now to Salazar, having toured the potential drilling areas.  And today, Kim Murphy, writing another article for the Los Angeles Times about the trouble-plagued oil recovery vessel Arctic Challenger, notes:

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Chances of Shell Oil Drilling in Arctic in 2012 Diminishing by the Hour – Updated

12:06 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Shell Oil has already reduced the number of possible exploratory wells to be drilled this season in the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from eight to three, or possibly two – one in the Beaufort and one in the Chukchi.  Although they have deployed two drilling rigs into the Arctic this season, the drilling itself cannot start until the oil spill containment equipment on the barge Arctic Challenger is on site.

As of Monday, here is a short version of the current status of the Arctic Challenger‘s re-design and testing, in and near Bellingham, Washington:

Coast Guard officials say they’re waiting for Shell to finish nearly 200 items on the barge before they can be inspected. Those include things like electrical and firefighting equipment.

Another 200 items remain to be documented before the Coast Guard will declare the barge seaworthy. Then, after another federal agency tests the Challenger’s oil-vacuuming system, the barge can be towed to the Arctic. Shell says that journey will take two weeks or more.

Shell had planned to begin drilling in July. But delays in construction of the barge have forced the world’s largest oil company to cut back its Arctic drilling plans. Shell only has permission to drill in the brief Arctic summer.

Bowhead whaling season begins in late August. Given the five-week time frame described in the article quoted above, the barge cannot arrive on site until at least the first or second week of September.

Under agreements with Alaska Native bowhead whaling skippers and their organizations, Shell may drill in the Chukchi after the season begins, because the proposed drill holes are far from where the whales are usually hunted.  This is not the case in the Beaufort.  If only one whaling captain objects to Shell’s 2012 Beaufort plans, they will have to suspend or not start drilling.

A photograph surfaced today, showing an interesting construction detail on the stern of the Arctic Challenger.  First off, here is a screen shot from Google Earth I made of the Arctic Challenger, moored in Coos Bay Oregon, before Shell bought it and started modifications:

Arctic Challenger in Coos Bay - early 2012

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Thoughts on Shell Oil’s Arctic Oil Spill Containment Barge, the Arctic Challenger

8:46 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Arctic Challenger 1982 color adj.

Above is a drawing I made thirty years ago today.

It was drawn in Chatham Strait in Southeast Alaska, as the Crowley Maritime tugboat Sea Giant towed the Arctic Challenger from Elliot Bay in Seattle to Prudhoe Bay.  At the time, I was working as a deck hand on the Sea Giant.  Below is a drawing I made then of the Sea Giant.

Sea Giant 1982

The Arctic Challenger was built in 1977, to perform as an icebreaking barge during the Sealift operations that saw the construction of the Prudhoe Bay oil production facilities and infrastructure.  Crowley Maritime’s history page notes:

In the late 1970s Crowley added to its fleet the Arctic Challenger, a 310-by-105-foot icebreaker barge

The Arctic Challenger could haul freight, but its main purpose was to plow through the ice between Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay, should ice conditions warrant that.

Sea Giant and Arctic Challenger 1982

Near the bow there was a tall tower from which the “Ice Captain” was supposed to be able to spot leads in the ice, along with the help of spotter aircraft.  In the stern there were two notches.  They were designed to fit the bows of two 7,000 HP-class Crowley tugs.

Although the Arctic Challenger was not needed as an icebreaker in 1982, it had been tried in that role earlier, and was found to be poorly designed.  It didn’t draw a lot of water – 4.1 feet empty – so, after having been broken by the bows,  ice would creep along underneath the hull and ultimately foul the props and rudders of the propelling tugs.  Not good when you’re 3,000 miles from Seattle.

Crew members of towing tugs had been injured over the five years since the barge’s completion, and it was not considered to be a “good luck” barge in fleet scuttlebutt. It never really found a niche after the Sealifts were over.  It languished, being shuttled from Seattle to the Gulf of Mexico to Coos Bay, Oregon, where it stayed for a long time.

A 2008 blog entry by an Oregon blogger erroneously stated that the Arctic Challenger was “being scrapped out.”  I think the boat then being scrapped was an old Bering Sea trawler of the same name, but the blog entry gave a good picture of the barge:


KTOO radio recently published a photo that may be confusing or inaccurate.  It shows a vessel which is not the Arctic Challenger overshadowing a barge which may be the Arctic Challenger under reconstruction in Bellingham, Washington:


The Arctic Challenger is what Shell Oil claims will be their Arctic oil spill response unit.  They are not joking.

Here is an artist’s conception of what it might look like if and when they finish revamping this loser dockside queen:


Essentially, what you see here is a storage shed with really thick walls at the waterline.  It has never been powered, and none of the new articles about construction delays mention it as being anything more than a barge.  So, as an oil spill response vehicle, it is useless unless configured with its tugboat power.

Unless the problems associated with the hull shape have been addressed, what we will probably see when Shell Oil inevitably spills oil in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas will be a crew urged on by their bosses to go faster, cramming ice under the barge and into the power sources of the tug, fouling and bending the running gear.

Unless the problems associated with the hull shape have been addressed, the vessel should not be certified by the Coast Guard for Shell’s contemplated use.

I don’t think any of the reporters who have covered the Arctic Challenger have looked very closely at the hulk’s history, or interviewed anyone who has ever worked the rig in any of its previous incarnations.