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USCG Pursuing Criminal Investigation Against Shell Drilling Rig In Alaska

1:29 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Noble Discoverer

Things just took a turn to the worse for Shell Alaska, and their scam to get two oil drilling rigs the hell out of Alaska before 2013, so as to avoid paying taxes here.

While its companion drilling rig, Kulluk, lies wallowing in the rocky surf off the southern coast of the Kodiak Island group, the Shell Alaska drilling rig Noble Discoverer lies impounded about 300 miles to the northeast, in Seward Harbor.  It pulled in to Seward in late November, with propulsion problems.  When the U. S. Coast Guard came aboard, things took a turn for the worse:

[T]he U.S. Coast Guard has launched a criminal investigation into the activities of a 572-foot oil drilling and exploration ship run by the Noble corporation, a group contracted by Royal Dutch Shell to search for oil in the arctic. Noble owned the Kulluk drilling rig that ran aground in rough Alaskan seas.

The revelation that another Noble ship working for Shell may have been operating with serious safety and pollution control problems bolstered allegations from environmental activists that the oil industry is unable to conduct safe oil drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean.

The Coast Guard conducted a routine marine safety inspection when Noble’s Discoverer arrived at a Seward, Alaska port in late November. The inspection team found serious issues with the ship’s safety management system and pollution control systems. The inspectors also listed more than a dozen “discrepancies” which, sources tell CBS News, led them to call in the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) to determine if there were violations of federal law.

Sources told CBS News that when criminal investigators arrived, the Noble Discoverer’s crew had been provided with lawyers and declined to be interviewed.

As pointed out by retired University of Alaska Prof. Rick Steiner, in my interview with him yesterday for Firedoglake, the is reason to doubt Shell will be able to drill in the Alaska Arctic at all during 2013:

Phil Munger:  In light of the revelation in the Alaska Dispatch today that Shell was indeed in a hurry to get out of Dodge – eh, Dutch – before New Years to avoid $6 million in taxes, do you have anything to add?

Rick Steiner: I say, great job by the Dispatch reporters on this!

Here again, is perfect evidence that Shell is putting profits over responsible conduct. We have seen this so much in Alaska oil industry and government we are almost desensitized to it.

This entire affair means that we take a “time-out” for 2013…even if the Kulluk (which apparently translates to “Thunder”) can be pulled off, it is almost certainly out of commission for 2013. That means not only that their 2013 Beaufort drilling is done, but also their Chukchi as they need the Beaufort rig as a potential relief rig for the Chukchi.

Anyone convinced that Shell Alaska’s performance here during the 2013 season shows the company ready to pursue more dangerous enterprises, like dealing with billions of gallons of crude oil off of and on our fragile Arctic coasts, needs to pursue another line of work. Read the rest of this entry →

The Kulluk Unified Command HQ as an Indicator Shell Alaska Has Its Head Up Its Ass – Updated

1:40 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Unified Command for the Kulluk response

I’ve suspected since early August that Shell Alaska was more interested in style than substance, and that their chain of command didn’t know how to deal creatively with either disruption, or with questions about the quality of their work.  I also suspect others who have left their ship know this too.

It isn’t like this is unique to corporate cultures or to energy industry corporate cultures.  Loyalty is something I’ve sought from my employees when I had them.  But never at the expense of their being able to speak up about problems when they occur.

Shell Alaska, becoming desperate as people in its upper and inner workings saw their timeline charts becoming unrealistic, freaked out last summer.  I got a glimpse of it on August 7th, 2012,when I showed up at the Bellingham, Washington dock where the Arctic Challenger was being modified for its role in the 2012 Arctic drilling season:

[I] requested a tour of the project. [The project director] flatly told me “No,” and I was not allowed to take any photographs of the vessel. He assured me that Shell Oil will be contacting me soon with more information. 

The ambience of the work place there reminded me very much of projects in the past where I have worked that are seriously behind schedule and nervous of potential outcomes. 

I was followed by private police until I left Bellingham.

I’m such a malicious physical threat, right?  Never got the call, by the way.  Nobody from Shell Alaska has answered any of my several calls, emails or other queries.  Ever.

This week’s grounding of the Kulluk may have actually been inevitable.  A new, untried design, the  Aiviq, took at least one too many chances when deciding to not take shelter – there were no lack of good options – about a week ago, as weather reports rapidly worsened in the north Gulf of Alaska.

We don’t know yet what sorts of pressure the skipper of the tug might have been under as he pushed his tug into mounting sea, while towing an unwieldy pie dish the size of two football fields welded side-to-side, into waters notorious for messing with tugs and their tows.

Rick Steiner put it succinctly yesterday:

There is a lot to learn about this cascade of failures that put the Kulluk on the rocks.  The rig was not adequately equipped for heavy weather towing, they should have called the Alert sooner, and tried to shelter sooner. 

Clearly Shell should have thought through contingencies for a loss of tow in heavy weather, and they didn’t. The weather encountered is not extreme and unexpected in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter – it’s just winter. This doesn’t inspire confidence in their safety and contingency planning capability.

It does not.  And Steiner, a longtime critic of Shell Alaska, is not alone.

Retired University of Alaska Prof. Steiner has been looking at this from the viewpoint of tens of thousands of hours of maritime experience.  Retired University of Alaska Prof. Steve Aufrecht is looking at the grounding and response from the viewpoint of a highly regarded expert on public policy.  Aufrecht published two articles Wednesday that clearly show his concern about how the Unified Command is handling the grounding.

The first, Keeping Track of the Kulluk – SEACOR Owns The Communications System, looks at the online architecture and corporate connections of the Unified Command’s web presence.  Aufrecht isn’t as creeped out as me about the strange interconnections and conflicts of interest involved here, but he is concerned:

This feels a bit like Diebold running the voting machines.

I don’t think the industry that has caused the problem should be the one running the information system the public and the media have to use to get information about what’s going on.

I understand that government salary levels don’t allow them to compete with the private sector for the best and brightest computer folks.  But when they contract out for private companies to run the website for something like this, they should get a company that has no interest in the content of the website.  I suspect though that Shell and Noble suggested, and maybe are even paying for, the website.  But there’s no such thing as a free website.

In his next post on the Kulluk debacle, Aufrecht looks at the propaganda-PR aspects of how Shell Alaska is trying to spin this fiasco - Shell’s Kulluk Response: Look How Great We Are! 

Aufrecht tartly observes that Shell seems to be trying to portray the grounding of the Kulluk as some sort of victory for their hard-working, risk-taking team.  He proceeds to shred a Tuesday Shell press release:

Shell’s response is like being at the funeral and talking only about how nice the flowers look.

The gist of paragraph 1: We were successful!

The gist of paragraph 2: We did great under terrible conditions 

The gist of paragraph 3: Kulluk was a success and this is merely a learning experience so we can be more successful.

The gist of paragraph 4: This wasn’t about drilling and we’ve got the world’s best working on this. We’re confident!

Sadly, it is all worse than this.

There are now, according the Shell, over 600 people involved in this farce.  Nothing exemplifies its pathetically comic aspects better than this picture the Unified Command has posted on the flickr page they created today, showing an enormous number of people busying themselves with nuttiness at the Unified Command HQ in a pricey convention room at the Marriott Hotel, all wearing what appear to be either life jackets, or vests that mimic them:

Unified Command for the Kulluk response

Is there anything remotely resembling common sense buried somewhere in Shell Alaska’s Arctic drilling project?

Update – Thursday 11:00 am Alaska Time:

A story posted this morning at the Alaska Dispatch confirms that Shell was in a rush to get the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer out of Alaska before January 1st, to avoid millions of dollars in taxes up here:

A move by Shell to avoid millions in Alaska state taxes may have backfired when the oil rig Kulluk ran aground Monday on Kodiak Island. The rig initially went adrift while it was being towed to a shipyard and tax shelter in Seattle. Instead, the vessel found itself literally stuck inside Alaska at the start of the new year.

…..

A Shell spokesman last week confirmed an Unalaska elected official’s claim that the Dec. 21 departure of the Kulluk from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor involved taxation.

City councilor David Gregory said Shell would pay between $6 million and $7 million in state taxes if the Kulluk was still in Alaska on Jan. 1.

Shell’s Curtis Smith said in an email last week that the decision involved financial considerations. The rig had been moored in the Aleutian Islands port following several months on an oil exploration project in the Arctic Ocean.

“We are now planning to sail both vessels to the west coast for seasonal maintenance and inspections. Having said that, it’s fair to say that the current tax structure related to vessels of the type influenced the timing of our departure,” Smith said. “It would have cost Shell multiple millions to keep the rigs here,” he added, though he didn’t have an exact amount.

Gregory said the departure of the Kulluk took money away from local small businesses servicing the rig. He predicted the maritime mishap will prove very costly to the oil company.

“It will cost them more than that $6 million in taxes. Maybe they should have just stayed here,” Gregory said.

The Kulluk is still here, on the rocks. And the Noble Discover is all but impounded in Seward.
Read the rest of this entry →

PEER Sues BSEE Over Non-response on FOIA Seeking Arctic Drilling Testing Safety Records

11:04 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The crushed containment dome from Shell's Arctic Challenger

The activist watchdog organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), filed suit today in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, against the Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).  The suit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, seeks to force BSEE to “disclose records wrongfully withheld in failing to respond within the statutory deadline to Plaintiff’s five FOIA requests.”

PEER, along with other parties, has been trying to unravel what happened in September, in Puget Sound, when testing of the containment dome apparatus Shell hoped to deploy in the Arctic later that month failed catastrophically. Although BSEE responded in November to an FOIA request from Seattle’s KUOW Radio, they have not responded to any of the similar requests from PEER.  Here’s an extract the environmental NGO’s press release on the suit:

The federal agency overseeing offshore oil and gas operations slated for this spring in Arctic waters lacks basic assurances that disastrous spills and other accidents will be prevented or effectively contained, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At issue are the safeguards required to protect against such known hazards as sea ice, subsurface ice scour and blowouts, as well as specifications for well design and well integrity control.

A relatively new agency called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), within the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over offshore drilling operations in federal waters, including the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. The agency, however, has not been able to respond to series of requests posed by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act asking for records detailing how BSEE will approach issues ranging from sea ice to spill containment.

“We have yet to see any evidence supporting the claim that Interior has upgraded the lax enforcement enabling the BP Gulf spill. In fact, what few records we have been able to pry loose suggest just the opposite,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization today filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “This material on operational safety should be on the world-wide web, not locked away in a proprietary safe.”

What little information BSSE has disclosed raises more doubts about its independence from industry. In September, following an earlier PEER lawsuit, the agency was forced to concede that it had done only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis of the results for the capping system to prevent a repeat of the large, lengthy Gulf of Mexico blowout in the sensitive Arctic waters.

Since July, Firedoglake has been covering the strange odyssey of the Arctic Challenger, the old barge Shell is converting to one of the main features of its impending Arctic offshore drilling program.  PEER will keep us updated on progress of its five previous FOIA actions, and of this lawsuit.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced his department’s plan for petroleum development of the region of northwest Alaska known as NPR-A, an area about the size of the state of Maine:

The Interior Department’s plan for managing a vast petroleum reserve on Alaska’s North Slope calls for a roughly 50-50 split between conservation and oil development plus accommodation for a pipeline that could carry offshore Arctic Ocean oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday announced that the plan will allow for development of nearly 12 million acres within the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area roughly the size of Indiana.

Salazar said in his announcement that the plan will guide the transition from leasing and exploration to responsible production and transport of the reserve’s oil and gas.

One feature of the plan Salazar introduced is that it appears it will tie in directly to the infrastructure Shell will need to develop to market the oil it intends to produce from its impending offshore production wells.  However, Alaska GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski is concerned that Salazar’s plan doesn’t give energy giants like Shell some sort of blank slate:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she remained concerned that the plan sets up hurdles for pipelines carrying oil drilled offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to the trans-Alaska pipeline. Salazar should make it clear, she said, that future environmental review of potential pipeline routes will not prohibit their construction or make them prohibitively costly.

In regard to the PEER lawsuit, it isn’t at all clear why BSEE responded to KUOW‘s FOIA, yet seems to have ignored PEER’s five similar requests.

In regard to Salazar’s December 19th announcement, though Sen. Murkowski was critical of the safeguards Interior seems to have put in place in the plan, Alaska’s other U.S. senator, Mark Begich, was less critical:

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said more than 200 exploration wells have been drilled in the NPR-A since the 1940s and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates reserves at 900 million barrels of technically recoverable oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Begich said in a press release that he was pleased that the plan included provisions to transport oil through the reserve but that the Interior Department has not cleared restrictions on petroleum development in the eastern portion.

From my perspective, it seems the Obama administration is bound to support Shell’s endeavors, along with those of other energy companies, in northwestern Alaska, and off its Arctic shores, far more than has any previous administration. Read the rest of this entry →

Amidst Arctic Drilling Lies, Shell VP Tells Truth – “There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills”

8:25 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The crushed containment dome from Shell's Arctic Challenger

Two news articles came out on Thursday and Friday that should concern anyone worried about Shell Oil’s plans to drill for oil offshore in northern Alaska waters.

On Thursday, BBC published a feature article on the status of Shell’s Alaska drilling project, which just concluded what many consider to have been a disastrous 2012 season.  Here’s Shell’s Alaska Vice President, Pete Slaiby:

“There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people’s subsistence? My view is no, I don’t believe that would happen.”

On the other hand, he argues that oil extracted off the coast of Point Hope could make a big difference to America as a whole.

“It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States,” he says.

Sheesh!  Can one imagine back in 1989, BBC interviewing Exxon Valdez skipper, Joe Hazelwood, with him stating:

“There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people’s subsistence? My view is no, I don’t believe that would happen.”

On the other hand, he argues that oil transported in his tanker across Prince William Sound could make a big difference to America as a whole.

“It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States,” he says.

Or BBC interviewing BP CEO Tony Hayward in early 2010, with Haywood stating:

“There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people’s subsistence? My view is no, I don’t believe that would happen.”

On the other hand, he argues that oil extracted off the coast of the American Gulf of Mexico states could make a big difference to America as a whole.

“It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States,” he says.

Actually, I CAN imagine those people saying that then.  Slaiby and company had hoped nobody would ask hard questions about this past summer’s abortive drilling attempts, particularly about the spectacular failure of a system they had touted as “state-of-the-art” on more than one occasion – the oil spill containment dome built to be deployed on the old icebreaking barge, Arctic Challenger.

Arctic Challenger 1982 color adj.

I’ve previously written seven articles about the Arctic Challenger for firedoglake, beginning on July 27th, the 30th anniversary of the day I had made the above drawing of the barge, as it slowly moved northward toward Alaska’s Arctic, being towed by the barge I was helping crew.  The last of those articles was about six weeks ago, after the conclusion of hearings in Anchorage, conducted by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.  Between those dates, I visited the barge in Bellingham, hoping to look at the modifications being made, and at the containment dome apparatus, only to be denied access, and followed out of town by Shell-hired security police.  I wrote other followups on barge modification progress fiascos.

In that last article, I published the text of a Federal FOIA request that had been submitted to government agencies by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.  PEER hasn’t heard back yet, but today, Seattle’s KUOW Radio published a report on the Arctic Challenger fiasco that reveals that they had taken the same action as PEER, but have gotten information back.  Here is the central finding:

Read the rest of this entry →

What Really Happened When Shell Oil’s Containment Dome Failed in Puget Sound Last Month? PEER Seeks to Find Out

10:03 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

(photo: hyperion327 / flickr)

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.

Read the rest of this entry →

Oil and Ice: The Risks of Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean

9:18 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The above video was produced recently by the Center for American Progress.

On Tuesday, Anchorage’s KTUU TV ran a story that tried to update viewers on the “progress” of Shell Oil’s attempt to start drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas this season.  Here’s a link to the story, with video.

In the article, there is a contrast between the realism of Rebeccs Noblin, Director of the Anchorage office of the Center for Biological Diversity, and the forced optimism of Shell Oil’s local Alaska Vice President, Pete Slaiby:

Shell Oil could be gambling big with its latest move. Its Kulluk drilling ship left Dutch Harbor on Monday, heading to the Arctic on an uncertain journey. Shell says its second ship, the Noble Discoverer, should also leave Dutch Harbor sometime this week. 

Despite this, federal permits are not yet in hand to drill individual wells — and an oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, sits in a Bellingham, Washington shipyard. Drilling cannot begin until it’s stationed in the Arctic. 

Finally, Shell says, all of the pieces are coming together. It expects the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping to complete its final tests and inspections of the Challenger within the next few days.  

“This is no shot in the dark,” says Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska. “These things have been planned for six years.”  

From Arctic ice that stubbornly refused to retreat, to a mishap in which the Nobel Discovery lost its mooring in Dutch Harbor, Shell has had a number of setbacks this summer — not to mention a recent scolding from the United States Interior Secretary, who says Shell’s delays this season are the company’s own fault.  

“People are saying, ‘Are you frustrated?’ Actually I get that question too much. The answer is ‘Really no,’” says Slaiby. “Because we really know we are going to work through these remaining issues.” 

Actually, Shell is very concerned.

When I visited the work site of the renovations and modifications of the Arctic Challenger at dockside in Bellingham, Washington, on August 8th, I got the distinct feeling of job site paranoia:

I thanked him [Superior's job site manager] for the best information anyone has yet given me, and requested a tour of the project. He flatly told me “No,” and I was not allowed to take any photographs of the vessel. He assured me that Shell Oil will be contacting me soon with more information.  

The ambience of the work place there reminded me very much of projects in the past where I have worked that are seriously behind schedule and nervous of potential outcomes. 

I was followed by private police until I left Bellingham.

Since the 8th of August, nothing having to do with the Arctic Challenger project has broken in favor of speeding things up.

At the time, I was probably the only person to publicly claim that Shell might not get it together in time to even drill a single hole this season.  Since then, there have been others coming to similar conclusions.

Here’s what you get if you google “Arctic Challenger delays.”

As the Center for Biological Diversity’s Noblin told KTUU yesterday:

“Shell’s really jumping the gun, moving its ships into the Arctic,” says Rebecca Noblin, director of the Center’s Anchorage office. 

“Ideally you wouldn’t be drilling in these kind of harsh conditions without being absolutely certain that you have your ducks in a row, and we just don’t have that here.”

Washington State Department of Ecology Shames Shell Oil: Clean Up Your Oil Spill Cleanup Barge

11:14 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Arctic Challenger at Dock in Bellingham

I.  As the pressure mounts on hapless contractor Superior Energy Services to finish work on Shell Oil’s forlorn hope to achieve a 2012 Arctic oil drilling season, the barge and renovation project have been spilling oil and hydraulic fluids into Bellingham Bay, where the work is being done:

The containment vessel designed to capture oil in the event of a spill during exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska has itself been responsible for four minor illegal fluid discharges during the last three weeks, the Coast Guard confirmed Monday.

The discharges all involved hydraulic fluid and were generally limited to about a quart each time, all of which was contained and cleaned up. The fine was just $250. But the discharges signal Shell Exploration’s continuing problems with the vessel, the Arctic Challenger, whose trouble-plagued retrofit in Bellingham, Wash., has delayed the launch of the first major offshore oil drilling in the U.S. Arctic in 20 years.

Not only has the contractor been fined, the Washington State Department of Ecology seems to be taking the spills more seriously than any similar Alaska agency would.  I’m reprinting the entire Department of Ecology bulletin here, as it may prove to be more important than now realized:

BELLINGHAM – The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) is requiring improved protection for Bellingham Bay during work on the oil-containment barge Arctic Challenger.

Superior Energy Services is building an oil-containment system on a barge at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, 629 Cornwall Ave. Shell will use the barge at offshore drilling sites in the Alaskan Arctic. In the event of an oil spill, the barge is designed to lower a large dome over the leaking oil, capture it, and pump it onto the barge.

Since July 24, 2012, the construction project has resulted in three hydraulic oil spills, about a quart each, from the barge, and a diesel fuel spill, estimated at less than 20 gallons, from a work boat to Whatcom Waterway.

On Thursday, Aug. 9, Ecology issued a notice of correction, requiring Superior to take specific steps to prevent further hydraulic spills including:

  • Plugging deck drains to prevent leaks from going over the side into the water.
  • Locking equipment so that it can’t be used until the lock is removed.
  • Using barriers to block and capture spray leaking from pressurized hydraulic systems.
  • Monitoring hydraulic systems during startup.
  • Requiring additional supervision and oversight.
  • Having spill response equipment and materials immediately available.

Superior has 24 hours from the time it receives Ecology’s notice to employ the corrective measures, and seven days to provide a report to Ecology that describes how the company is prepared to respond to spills.

Ecology continues to investigate the spills and is considering additional enforcement actions.

In addition to the notice of correction and potential enforcement, Ecology is requiring lead construction contractor Greenberry Industrial to conduct its operation as if it was covered under an industrial stormwater discharge permit. The project was scheduled to be completed in July. Because it can take up to two months to obtain permit coverage, Ecology used its discretion to allow Superior to continue working as long as it meets permit requirements.

“Small spills lead to bigger spills,” said Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response program. “Our hope is that the companies that are gearing up for oil work in Alaska and spilling here will learn from our work with them and ensure spills of all sizes are prevented everywhere they work.” [Emphases added]

II. Since my visit last week to the Bellingham dock where the Arctic Challenger is being modified, from which I was followed by two private security cars, until I left Bellingham, two articles detailing more about Shell’s 2012 drilling plans have been published.

First, I wrote here on Tuesday August 14th about the current status of the drilling support fleet, where they are and what they are or are not doing.

Second, Alex De Marban has written a very detailed article for The Alaska Dispatch on the history of the Arctic Challenger.  De Marban cites my work, without providing any links:

The media has zeroed in on the slow progress. Everyone from Alaska blogger Phil Munger, who said he was on a tug that once helped tow the Challenger, to the nation’s largest papers are asking questions. The Los Angeles Times recently zeroed in on a minor fine stemming from small discharges into the water during the vessel’s retrofit at the shipyard in Bellingham.

“It’s not a project we can rush, and since it’s a first of its kind vessel, there are always going to be delays related to construction,” Smith said in an email to Alaska Dispatch. “Unfortunately, these delays are impacting our drilling season. But make no mistake this vessel is rock solid and capable.”

In an email, Smith refused to answer why Shell chose this particular vessel to play such a pivotal role. But a review of the Arctic Challenger reveals a colorful history, from its glory days in Alaska’s Arctic to idle times at dock, with birds calling the barge home.

De Marban goes on to follow the Arctic Challenger, from design, to its use in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea as an icebreaker, to its Cinderella years of neglect, in Long Beach, California, and Coos Bay, Oregon, to its recent resurrection as the key piece of equipment in Shell’s plans to drill for oil off of the Alaskan coast.  De Marban cites Crowley Maritime’s Bruce Harland, who appears to be somewhat familiar with the Arctic Challenger‘s Crowley work history, as praising the vessel’s utility:

Harland, the Anchorage-based vice president with Crowley, said he didn’t know what modifications Superior is making to the vessel, but it had a very capable life as an icebreaker when his company operated it.

“It’s just been a dependable piece of equipment,” he said.

As far as Harland knows, the ship’s return to the Arctic as part of Shell’s oil drilling operations would be its first duty since the late 1990s. And he expects the Challenger’s reliability to continue with its second life in the Arctic.

Requests to Superior Energy and Shell seeking more information about the overhaul went unanswered.

Harland’s opinion is at odds with my remembrance of the vessel’s reputation in the early 1980s, based on my having worked with several crewmen who had worked on tugs pushing the Arctic Challenger through the ice in the late 1970s.  However, the AC has been modified so that it can no longer be pushed through the ice.  It will be towed by an ice breaking tug.

Since I wrote here about the rapidly declining probability of Shell being able to even have a 2012 drilling season in the Beaufort or Chukchi Seas, nobody has taken a chance on predicting there will be one this year.  It looks to me like Shell will have a good ten more months to work the wrinkles out of their systems, and – hopefully – spill no more oil from their oil spill prevention and cleanup barge.

De Marban’s article links to a video animation of Superior Energy Service’s contemplated use of their Arctic Containment device.  Here is the link – it is the second video down, titled Marine Technical Services’ Arctic Containment Animation.

Compare that to Shell’s 2010 concept, which was pre-BP Gulf blowout:

 

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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Does Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plan Adequately Address Arctic Summer Storms? Of Course Not

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Arctic Summer Storm 08:08:2012

Arctic climate scientists have been closely watching the development of weather anomalies associated with diminishing sea ice in the larger Arctic Basin.  A good place to keep track of what are known as Arctic Summer Storms is the web site, Arctic Sea Ice Blog.    As climate science blogs go, this one’s commenting community seems to be top notch, with a few contrarians or anti-alarmists to spice things up.

That the potential for devastation from Arctic Summer Storms is growing might easily be shown by the alarming graph posted below, prepared by the blog:

ISIS sea ice change 2005-2012

Essentially, Arctic Summer Storms are byproducts of decreasing sea ice during the summer.  They have the capacity of further reducing sea ice coverage rather rapidly, which might then lead to potential for more storms – a sort of cascade of unprecedented weather events.

It has been postulated that we may eventually have what might be called “Arcticanes,” very large summer storms in the Arctic that could prove devastating to coastal communities, ecological niches and structures at sea, such as oil or gas platforms.

Although Shell Oil’s plans for test drilling and production drilling off of Alaska’s Arctic coasts assess some problems, no planning has been put forth regarding Arcticanes.  Probably, in part, because they exist more in potential so far, rather than as historical example.

We may not have long to wait, though.

One important realization from growing awareness of such climate events as Arctic Summer Storms is the obvious fact that the models and structures used by governments to assess impacts of Arctic developments fail to include much recent science on newly discovered or postulated climate-controlled variables into these development plans and scenarios.  With the current gridlock in Washington DC pointing more toward rolling back sensible regulatory regimes than toward updating approaches to standards, we can expect disasters to precede solutions.

As recently as late last week, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papa stated, “[f]or right now, we are well prepared, because like we always do traditionally, we have multi-mission assets that we can deploy, that are very capable, and that are sufficient for the level of human activity that’s going on this summer and perhaps for the next three or four summers.”

But the USCG and other U.S. government agencies seem to lack the imagination, vision and cautionary perspective to broadly understand how different things are rapidly becoming in the far, far North.

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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