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Shell drill rigs depart Seattle for Arctic waters in Alaska

Lisa Demer
The Kulluk is nearly ready for Arctic oil exploration off Alaska's north coast. The orange life rafts carried on the rig are sealed to protect against fire and oil. Each unit carries up to 60 people and can motor away from the rig to safety. Shell now is waiting for one final federal permit and favorable ice conditions to set up in the Beaufort and Chukchi with drilling equipment, support vessels and aircraft.
Mike Siegel / MCT
The Kulluk is one of two drill ships Shell plans to use in Alaska during its 2012 drilling campaign. The Kulluk is owned outright by Shell and it was designed with a unique conical shape to allow the rig work in ice conditions. The Kulluk is undergoing modifications to its air emissions systems and will be joined by other Shell vessels in Seattle before sailing for Alaska this summer. The Kulluk is next to the X-Band radar that was once scheduled to be stationed at Adak. Seattle is in the background. Feb. 2012
Photo courtesy of Shell
Shell has purchased the offshore drilling rig Kulluk, for drilling in the Beaufort Sea. photo furnished 3/2006
Photo courtesy of Shell
Shell has purchased the offshore drilling rig Kulluk, for drilling in the Beaufort Sea. photo furnished 3/2006
Photo courtesy of Shell
The conical drilling unit, the Kulluk, was staged in Dutch Harbor in 2010.
Photo courtesy of Shell
Oil drill ship Kulluk is frozen in sea ice.
Photo courtesy of Shell
AlaskaThe Kulluk conical drilling rig was towed in August from McKinley Bay in Canada to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell Oil
Shell's vessels, MV Aiviq, (left) and drill rig Kulluk (center) leave Seattle, Washington this morning, June 28, 2012. The Aiviq, an ice class anchor handler built by Shell to work in Alaska, will tow the Kulluk to its final destination in AK.
Vigor Industrial / Shell
Shell's vessels, MV Aiviq, (left), drill rig Kulluk (center) and rig Noble Discoverer (right), leave Seattle, Washington this morning, June 28, 2012. The Aiviq, an ice class anchor handler built by Shell to work in Alaska, will tow the Kulluk to its final destination in AK.
Vigor Industrial / Shell
Ships bringing oil drilling equipment to Alaska pass through Seattle's Elliott Bay on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, as a Washington State Ferry passes on its way into Seattle. The Kulluk and Noble Discoverer and support ships are headed first to Dutch Harbor. Once open water allows, the rigs will move to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for offshore drilling.
Donna Gordon Blankinship / AP2012
The drill rig Kulluk is towed into open water after leaving a Seattle dock Wednesday morning, June 27, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Shell

Two massive Shell Oil Co. drilling rigs left a Seattle dock early Wednesday, starting the long trek to Alaska's Arctic waters and leaving behind years of legal battles and regulatory hurdles in a quest for riches under the sea.

With little drama, the Kulluk -- a 29-year-old conical Arctic drilling rig that spent a dozen years mothballed in Canada -- launched for Dutch Harbor, a supply stop on the way to the far north, just before 8 a.m. Seattle time. The Noble Discoverer -- a 1960s-era vessel used as a log carrier before being converted for drilling -- was right behind, said Curtis Smith, an Anchorage-based Shell spokesman in Seattle for the sendoff.

The U.S. Coast Guard was to escort the Shell ships as far as Port Angeles, Smith said.

The Kulluk will be towed by the Aiviq, a new icebreaking ship built in Louisiana for Shell's Arctic mission. In all, Shell plans to stage more than 20 ships, drilling rigs and support vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.

Decades ago, Shell pioneered drilling in Cook Inlet and also drilled the majority of early exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and others in the Beaufort.

The oil industry, regulators and environmentalists all will be watching closely as Shell works to become the first to produce oil in the fragile ecosystem off Alaska's north shore. So will Alaska Natives who depend on the sea.

This summer, Shell plans to drill three exploratory wells on its Burger prospect in the Chukchi and two wells on Sivilluq prospect in the Beaufort.

Each drilling rig will be equipped with two blowout preventers, one for the well being drilled, and a backup in case a relief well must be drilled. Each blowout preventer is beefed up with two sets of blind-shear rams designed to slash through drill pipe to close off a malfunctioning well.

Shell owns the rights to more than 2 million acres off of Alaska. It established itself as the major explorer in 2008 when it paid $2.1 billion for its Chukchi leases. But its plans to explore have been delayed for years by lawsuits and permit challenges as well as tougher oil spill prevention requirements put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Monday in Puget Sound, Shell tested its capping stack, a newly engineered unit designed to kill an out-of-control well or, if that doesn't succeed, funnel the oil into a containment system. Regulators from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which has signed off on Shell's overall oil spill response plan, said it successfully deployed in 200 feet of water. The capping stack will be housed on the icebreaker Fennica, which will be stationed roughly halfway between the drilling prospects.

Shell still must get well-specific permits from the bureau before drilling can begin. The test of the capping stack was one step toward those well approvals. The containment system also must be tested before the drilling permits are issued. That should happen in July, the agency said.

Shell started its journey quietly and closely guarded its schedule for pushing off.

In February, a group of Greenpeace activists including the actress Lucy Lawless, famous for her role in "Xena: Warrior Princess," boarded the Discoverer in New Zealand to protest Arctic drilling. They were arrested, and Shell went to court to keep Greenpeace away from its drillers. U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason has ordered the environmental group to stay a kilometer from Shell's drilling rigs within 200 miles of shore.

Greenpeace says it never planned any shenanigans for the send-off, though it participated in a pre-launch party hoax earlier this month. A model of a drilling rig that was supposed to be tapped for alcohol instead spewed it everywhere. Shell had nothing to do with the party -- it was staged to put attention on the dangers of drilling, said Travis Nichols, a Greenpeace spokesman in Seattle.

Greenpeace opposes any drilling in the Arctic because of the risk of a spill or other damage, Nichols said. The organization already has a ship with scientists aboard under sail for the Chukchi. The Esperanza is carrying two small submarines, which Greenpeace plans to deploy to document pre-drilling conditions, he said.

"What we're working against is the industrialization of the Arctic," Nichols said. "We want to keep the Arctic in its pristine form. So definitely, no drilling in the Arctic."

Shell, finally under sail too, doesn't anticipate any last minute obstacles. It expects to begin drilling in late July.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News