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Shell barge headed to Alaska Arctic waits for certification in Washington

Ben Anderson

A unique vessel designed for undersea oil spill containment -- and destined to accompany Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic -- has been temporarily held up in a Washington state port over concerns that it might not meet tough standards for specific, extremely severe weather conditions. 

Now, Shell plans to submit a new plan that will allow the barge -- dubbed the Arctic Challenger -- to join two drilling rigs, the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer, en route to Alaska. Those vessels left Washington on June 27, bound for Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain.

The barge is intended to contain oil in the event of an underwater spill. John Dwyer, officer in charge of the Coast Guard’s inspection division for Puget Sound, dubbed it an “Arctic containment system.” It would position itself over a leaking undersea well or pipeline and collect or burn off the released material.

Dwyer said that the Arctic Challenger is a one-of-a-kind vessel, which makes the inspection process for the barge tricky to nail down. According to Curtis Smith, spokesman for Shell Alaska, the issue arose from the way the barge fell between two designations used by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), which sets regulatory guidelines for vessels, depending on their type.

Initially, the plan that Shell submitted would require it to endure particularly extreme weather conditions -- what are referred to as “100-year storm” conditions -- under one of those two designations, but the recent inspection revealed some shortcomings in meeting those standards.

"They had to go and come up with a listing of all the potential requirements of the barge -- it’s a new concept of Arctic containment system that’s come up since Deepwater Horizon,” Dwyer said, referring to the 2010 spill of nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. “What they found was that there was going to be some question of if they could meet that 100-year standard.”

Shell will instead attempt to certify the vessel under guidelines for what are known as Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODU), which Smith described in an email as "typically a combination of a drilling rig and floating barge and are, by definition, temporary in nature." 

Smith said that the new designation follows different guidelines, though ones still appropriate for the vessel.

"(The) standard we are applying to this vessel was suggested by the accrediting agency ABS and is no less stringent than the original classification we were originally working under," Smith said. "MODU standards are more appropriate for the type of vessel we are building and the operations we have planned for it."

Dwyer said that Shell has already performed some repairs on the vessel, including piping and electrical. More won’t be known until Shell submits its new proposal for an alternative standard, which he said is expected sometime next week.

Bloomberg reported that the delay could also postpone the start of drilling operations in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, an operation that has been in the works for a long time and has seen Shell spend nearly $5 billion in preliminary permitting and preparation.

But Smith said that the issue won’t delay Shell’s exploratory drilling operations in Alaska’s Arctic. The Coast Guard and Shell say they have worked together closely on inspection and preparation for moving vessels to Alaska.

Smith said the biggest problem facing Shell's fleet of drilling-oriented vessels will be the persistence of sea ice following a harsh winter in Alaska, which should allow the Arctic Challenger to catch up. He said Shell plans to test systems within the next 10 days.

"From there, we can deploy directly to Alaska once the system is certified. That should not impact drilling as the barge will be in Alaska with time to spare given the persistence of sea ice," he said.

Dwyer said the Coast Guard is aware of the time-sensitive nature of Shell’s operation and for moving the barge out of Washington, but that doesn’t mean they’ll rush the process.

“I can guarantee that we’re not cutting any corners, and there are no shortcuts being followed at all,” he said. “I’ve got arguably one of the best inspectors in the Coast Guard on this project … he’s as good as they get.”

The Coast Guard is also accustomed to companies having urgency behind their inspection and approval needs.

“We tend to be in a business where you see a lot of time-critical projects,” Dwyer said. “The Coast Guard tries to be sensitive to that, so I imagine we’d try to move pretty quickly.”

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com

Correction: This story originally stated the Arctic Challenger was being delayed because of concerns that it wouldn't be able to handle rough weather conditions. This has been changed to reflect the particularly severe weather conditions that would accompany a 100-year storm.