Shell to unveil icebreaker for Arctic Alaska offshore drilling

Lisa Demer
CHRIS GRANGER / The Times-Picayune via Associated Press

LAROSE, La. -- A longtime Shell contractor has nearly completed a massive, customized icebreaking ship for the company's drilling projects in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

The icebreaker is part of a specialized fleet Shell hopes to deploy for exploration drilling next summer, if it can clear all the legal and regulatory hurdles.

Named the Aiviq, the Eskimo word for walrus, the $200 million, 360-foot steel vessel's main job will be to move anchor lines that will attach drilling rigs to the sea floor in the shallow Arctic. But it's also on standby in case of an oil spill -- it could recover about 10,000 barrels of spilled crude. The ship was designed to cut through ice a meter thick and likely will be able to move through thicker ice, its builder says. It can operate at minus 58 degrees.

Shell points to the ship as evidence that it's serious about drilling in -- and protecting -- the fragile Arctic.

Edison Chouest Offshore is building the ship at its Larose shipyard, North American Shipbuilding.

Edison Chouest is a family-owned company active in the oil business, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Along with affiliated businesses, Edison Chouest builds, owns and operates a fleet of vessels that serves offshore oil field operations, conducts research for the National Science Foundation and engages in other marine activities, its executives say. The company has 9,000 employees around the world.

The firm's president, Gary Chouest, donates thousands of dollars every year to political candidates in Louisiana, Alaska and other states. He has given to the campaigns of U.S. Rep. Don Young and U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.

In the first quarter of this year, he and members of his family used various corporate entities to contribute $60,000 to Young's legal defense fund, according to the congressional newspaper Roll Call. Those contributions are under investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Ethics, according to Young's office. Since 2007, Chouest has donated almost $325,000 to candidates, political action committees and Republican Party organizations, including $20,000 to the Alaska Republican Party, according to the website

Edison Chouest and a partner, Fairweather LLC, are building a 70,000-square-foot aviation center in Deadhorse, on Alaska's North Slope. The company has operated one of its research icebreakers, the Nathaniel Palmer, in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, said Michael Terminel, an Edison Chouest ship captain who oversees the company's Alaska operations.

The company's main Alaska project is the Aiviq. The ship's name came from a North Slope school girl as part of a competition.

"It will be the world's largest and most powerful anchor-handling icebreaker," Gary Chouest said.

Unloaded, the ship will weigh as much as 26,000 Chevy Suburbans, said Gary Rook, who, as technical director for Edison Chouest, designed the Aiviq. It's double hulled and was designed with redundancies like dual oil-water separators.

Features include ultra low emissions -- it was built to 2016 Environmental Protection Agency standards -- and extra insulation so that it operates as quietly as possible.

Pete Slaiby, Shell's vice president for Alaska, said the company wanted to address the concerns of North Slope communities that fear whales and other marine life will be disturbed by noise.

The Aiviq can house up to 36 Shell employees and 28 Edison Chouest crew members in quarters with furnishings as nice as those on cruise ships.

Edison Chouest has hired more than a dozen Alaskans already and sent them to Louisiana to train to work aboard the ship. One is Bill Soplu, 25, who is originally from Kaktovik. He's been working for the company for three years and rising through the ranks. He recently bought a house in North Pole. He's now going through advanced training and hopes to work on the new ship.

The Aiviq should be complete in the spring of 2012 and begin its long voyage through the Panama Canal to Seattle and eventually Alaska. Rook said the ship should be ready to work for Shell by June.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

Part 1: Shell gambles billions in Arctic Alaska push
Part 2: Oil spills and violence plague Shell operations in Nigeria
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Lisa Demer at or on