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Shell's ship drifting incident should raise red flags for Alaskans

Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo

I am not a boat captain, not of a skiff or even a dingy. I've never dropped an anchor and I have no idea what it's like to be in charge of a vessel more than 500 feet long.

So when my uneducated eyes saw the image of Arctic-bound Shell Oil drillship Noble Discoverer snuggling up to the beach near Unalaska, I, like many, dropped jaw and asked, "How on earth could they have let that happen?"

But noting my ignorance, I asked the opinion of people who do deal with big vessels on a daily basis. Their response? "How on earth could they have let that happen?"

There is debate now about the incident. Environmental groups have pounded on the Noble Discoverer's near-beaching with the glee of a pack of hyenas, pointing out other times (with completely different circumstances, I might add) when the ship has run into anchor trouble.

One Unalaska newsman is disputing the timeline as told by Shell, saying the ship drifted for much longer than 30 minutes. I don't envy the Coast Guard its duty in teasing this all out. While I'm hoping they do a good job, and I'm surprised at a few things so far.

Drug, alcohol tests?

First, I'm surprised the Coast Guard didn't ask all responsible parties to breath in a tube and pee in a cup. While the incident might not meet the typical standards of a "serious marine incident" it might well have had things gone any farther. And this is not just any vessel we are talking about here. The men and women running this boat are directly responsible for the health of our Arctic waters, assuming they fulfill their mission to drill this summer.

I, for one, would sleep better at night knowing that we don't have another Joseph Hazelwood -- captain of the Exxon Valdez --- on our hands.

Another question this incident raises is the one of who is really in charge. While the drill rigs and support vessels in question are typically thought of as Shell rigs, it's important to point out that they are not. Noble Drilling International, a contractor with offices and operations spanning the globe, owns and operates the Noble Discoverer. Not Shell.

Shell Oil spokesmen point out that it is up to Shell how the vessels are run, and that the issue of the anchor slipping is entirely their responsibility, but one wonders how far that goes. Does Shell, for example, have control over how many people were on watch?

Would they have that kind of control when drilling operations are under way?

The bottom line is, Shell and everyone else involved in this incident know that the world is watching them. If, under that kind of scrutiny, this kind of mishap can happen, it does not bode well for the future. Should the crew have noticed the ship's movement sooner?

Lingering fears

Should they have responded more quickly? I hope the Coast Guard investigation is thorough, but so far, I'm disappointed. If the guard doesn't have the authority to do drug and alcohol testing in such a situation, it should be given that leeway. If the agency does and it chose not to, that seems like an oversight to me.

The public, especially those who live there and are hoping with crossed fingers that Shell lives up to its promise to institute the very safest practices possible in the Arctic, are surely not encouraged by this incident. And I doubt those fears are going to be soothed by rhetoric.

It really doesn't matter if the ship touched bottom — but it does matter how long it drifted, and who should have noticed, and why it drifted at all. Most of all, we need to know the crew manning this ship is competent and capable of running such a delicate operation.

What is needed here are some candid explanations of how this happened, who or what slipped up, and how it is going to be fixed. Anything less will only add fuel to the fire of concern about drilling operations in the Arctic.

Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com. This commentary was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.