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Coast Guard loosens rules for Shell's Arctic barge

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

According to the Houston Chronicle energy blog, Fuel Fix, another small regulatory piece of Shell Oil's complex, long-running effort to drill exploration wells off Alaska's northern coast this summer has fallen into place.

The U.S. Coast Guard has approved a request by Shell to use different standards when evaluating the emergency response barge, Arctic Challenger. The vessel is in the final stages of construction in Bellingham, Wash.

Arctic Challenger will carry emergency equipment to contain a runaway well, and is intended to be deployed between Shell's exploratory operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Shell had applied for the Coast Guard's readiness evaluation under standards used for floating production vessels anchored in place for years at a time. Those standards say vessels must be able to withstand hurricanes and 100-year storms.

But earlier in July, Shell requested to change the classification of the Challenger to a "mobile offshore drilling unit" (MODU). The readiness standards for such a unit are less stringent, mainly because such vessels can move out of a storm's path.

Under the newly approved classification, the Challenger will only have to prove resilient to once-a-decade storms.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Chris O’Neil told Fuel Fix that Shell requested the change to accommodate a more agile barge mooring system that could “allow repositioning during a response to keep the workers on board out of harm’s way.”

The green light bodes well for Shell's efforts as the drilling season window narrows, but it doesn't mean the Arctic Challenger is ready to head north. Key components of the vessel have yet to be installed, Coast Guard inspections must still be conducted, and certain safety system deficiencies need to be corrected.

Read much, much more, here.