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Shell's troubled Arctic Challenger barge gets go-ahead to work in Arctic

Alex DeMarban
Courtesy Shell Oil

The U.S. Coast Guard has given final certification to a key containment barge needed by Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, a top Coast Guard official said Thursday.

Shell has promised not to drill into hydrocarbon bearing zones without the presence of the Arctic Challenger barge nearby. The unprecedented piece of equipment is a last line of defense in Shell's oil-spill response plans, but the 1976 ice-class barge has spent the summer tied up in Bellingham, Wash., undergoing a massive overhaul.   

Unexpected delays as part of that work and damage during tests of the barge's oil-containment system forced Shell to abandon plans to drill deep enough to reach oil this summer.

But the Coast Guard certified the barge on Wednesday, said Rear Adml. Thomas Ostebo, the top Coast Guard official for the Alaska district.

The ship also recently received a critical reclassification from the American Bureau of Shipping, said Ostebo, speaking at a field hearing of the Senate subcommittee of Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard in Anchorage. The meeting was called by committee chairman Sen. Mark Begich.

The containment system on the barge is designed to use hoses and a contaiment dome to suck up oil and gas from a spewing well and to pump it to the surface where it can be flared off. 

The barge was damaged on Sept. 15 because an electrical issue caused a valve to fail, forcing the containment system to sink rapidly. Water pressure damaged some buoyancy chambers and a side of the dome, said Pete Slaiby, Shell's top official in Alaska.

Shell has reviewed what happened to prevent it from happening again, Slaiby said.  The barge will be ready for drilling next year, said Slaiby. Asked why Shell did not have such a critical piece of equipment ready for drilling -- it began buying federal leases six years ago -- Slaiby said part of the problem was the "start-stop" nature of federal permitting that left Shell uncertain when it would be drilling. 

Shell is currently invovled in two top-hole projects, but may do more if time allows, Slaiby said. One of the efforts is located in the Chuckchi Sea about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright. The other is located in the Beaufort Sea about 20 miles north of Point Thomson. 

The Arctic Challenger barge was built in 1976 by Crowley Marine, following one of that company's toughest years delivering oil-field equipment in Alaska's ice-clogged Arctic. Read more about the Arctic Challenger here.

The amount of work involved to upgrade the barge, and the pace at which that work was carried out, "astonished" Ostebo. The containment system is the first of its kind, and the challenges the barge has faced are to be expected for such a complex and unusual system, said Ostebo.

Shell is currently doing "top-hole" work in the regions. That means this year, the company is laying the groundwork to drill complete wells next summer. It's currently allowed to drill to only 1,500 feet, nearly a mile short of where oil is expected.

The recent approvals mean that Shell has cleared the last key requirements needed to fully drill in the Arctic. Shell must still receive permission from federal regulators to drill beyond 1,400 feet. But such permission may only be a matter of time, now that the Challenger has won Coast Guard approval.   

 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com