Failure of Shell spill-containment dome draws new attack from drilling critic

Anchorage Daily NewsDecember 6, 2012 

WASHINGTON -- Reports that Shell's oil spill response dome was "crushed like a beer can" during testing have heightened criticism of drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska.

Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, is arguing the test should make the Obama administration rethink its support of Shell's Arctic efforts.

"Shell's unsuccessful test in Puget Sound raises new questions about the company's ability to successfully drill offshore in the Arctic," Markey wrote on Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Salazar is supportive of oil drilling in the waters off the Arctic coast of Alaska. But he did not let Shell drill deep enough to hit oil this year because the company's spill response equipment wasn't ready.

The dome on Shell's spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, was badly damaged during September testing in Puget Sound off Washington state. The massive dome is supposed to block oil and natural gas in case of an underwater spill.

Pete Slaiby, Shell's vice president for Alaska, said a faulty electrical connection led to the dome making a fast descent. Water pressure "deformed the side of the dome," he said. Documents provided to KUOW radio in Seattle show that a federal safety official saw what happened on a live video feed.

The official, the Alaska head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told a colleague in an email that his video screen suddenly filled with bubbles.

The containment dome then shot to the surface and "breached like a whale," BSEE Alaska head Mark Fesmire wrote. The dome then sank more than 120 feet before it was caught by a safety buoy and later recovered.

"As bad as I thought," Fesmire wrote to his colleague. "Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can."

Emails also showed that a remote controlled submarine got tangled in anchor lines during the test.

"The outcome of the containment dome test, the fact that Shell may have missed warning signals that something was wrong and Shell's problems using (remote operated vehicles), which could be required in an Arctic environment, raise troubling questions about whether Shell can drill safely in this harsh and sensitive area," Markey wrote the Interior secretary.

Interior spokesman Blake Androff said Markey's letter is being reviewed.

"As the secretary has made clear, any approved activities in the Arctic will be held to the highest environmental and safety standards," Androff said.

Markey isn't alone in Congress. A group of Democratic senators wrote Salazar in September and said the president hasn't made the case that drilling for oil in the environmentally sensitive waters off the Arctic coast is safe.

Both Alaska's senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, back offshore Arctic drilling. So does Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, who called Markey's letter "another manufactured overreaction" to steal headlines.

"Congressman Young remains confident that Shell will continue to work with the Department of Interior and the state of Alaska to ensure safe and successful drilling in the Arctic," said Young's spokesman, Luke Miller.

Shell says the oil spill containment system is the first of its kind and the fourth line of defense. Crews would first try to stop a blowout with drilling mud; then they would use a blowout preventer, and next a capping stack modeled after what eventually stopped the oil in BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. If the dome were deployed, oil would flow from the dome through an attached hose back to the barge.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company is making changes to the containment dome based on what it learned as a result of the testing that ended in damage.

"Once those modifications are complete, we will demonstrate the Challenger's functionality and integrity to regulators before deploying it to Alaska," he said. "We have every confidence it will deploy to Alaska in 2013 -- allowing us to drill into hydrocarbon zones in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas."

Email: scockerham@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @seancockerham.

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