What Really Happened When Shell Oil’s Containment Dome Failed in Puget Sound Last Month? PEER Seeks to Find Out
Four weeks ago, on Saturday, September 16th, in clear, calm, warm summer weather on Puget Sound, something happened while Shell Oil was testing its new, post-Deepwater Horizon oil blowout containment dome. The dome system was being deployed during a certification test being performed by Shell, its agent in the refurbishment and system makeover of the 35-year-old barge, Arctic Challenger, Superior Marine Technical Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).
Something happened. The test failed miserably, and the containment dome was severely damaged. At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported the following:
The refurbishment was completed last week and the vessel underwent sea trials in Washington’s Puget Sound, and a series of tests were successfully completed on the newly designed Arctic containment system, Op de Weegh said.
“However, during a final test, the containment dome aboard the Arctic Challenger barge was damaged,” she said.
Sources familiar with the testing said the mishap occurred when one of several clump weights was placed into about 160 feet of water to mark the area of a theoretical oil spill, to see if the containment dome aboard the barge could be lowered over it.
“When they came back to find it, it [the weight] was lost, submerged into the silt,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.
Engineers launched a mini-submarine known as a Remotely Operated Vehicle, which is part of Shell’s plan for putting any oil spill containment equipment into place, to help get the oil containment dome carried aboard the Challenger set over the “leak.”
“They got some of the weights set to hold the dome, then one of the eight winches on the dome became inoperative,” the source said. “They attempted to discover what was wrong by using the ROV, and got it tangled in the anchor lines of the dome and it sank into the silt.”
Divers were then dispatched to the sea floor to try to recover the dome without damaging the high-tech umbilical that controls it, he said.
It was not clear how much damage the dome ultimately suffered, but it apparently was enough to prompt Shell to abandon its well-drilling plans for the current season.
One of my confidential sources at the test site that day reported to me:
I’ve got more information from a tugboat skipper who was there, but he doesn’t want me to print it. He’s the one, based on being able to listen to the encrypted radio chatter when they were all tangled up, that called it a “clusterfuck.”
He assured me that this crew isn’t ready for a water park, let alone the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas.
On October 10th, Sen. Mark Begich held a hearing in Anchorage:
The overflow crowd also heard specifics on what happened to a Shell oil spill response system damaged during testing.
With only weeks to go before Shell Alaska wraps up its first exploratory drilling offshore Alaska in two decades, key players told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that the work went well and Shell has done an exemplary job despite some glitches and setbacks.
When the hearing got to finding out what happened aboard the Arctic Challenger on September 16th, a strangely different story emerged on what happened in the accident:
The barge-based containment system, including a massive dome that would be lowered over an out-of-control well, is the first of its kind and was on fast track for completion, [Shell Oil Alaska Vice President Pete] Slaiby said. It only became part of Shell’s required oil spill response after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Shell and Superior Energy Services, the contractor that owns and will operate the 38-year-old retrofitted barge, investigated how the dome was damaged during testing Sept. 15 off the coast of Washington state.
“Our investigation determined that a faulty electrical connection associated with one of the valves caused the valve to open, which caused the rapid descent and ultimate damage to the dome,” Slaiby told Begich.
Safety tethers prevented the dome from hitting bottom, he said. The dome was nowhere near the side of the barge and didn’t bang against it or hit anything else, Slaiby told reporters during a break in the hearing.
“But buoyancy chambers were damaged,” he said.
During the rapid descent, the water pressure “deformed the side of the dome itself,” he said. Shell and Superior are working together to improve the technical aspects of the system as well as procedures.
“The design concept, however, is solid,” Slaiby said in the hearing.
The oil spill containment barge is the fourth line of defense, he said. Crews would first try to stop a blowout with drilling mud, then turn to a blowout preventer already in place, then a capping stack, a special blowout preventer like what eventually stopped the oil from flowing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.