More than a week after completing its preliminary oil and gas drilling operations, Royal Dutch Shell is trying to get its equipment out of the rapidly freezing Alaska Arctic.
Popular Mechanics reports that as of Tuesday, " some of the oil giant's vessels are still in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of the Alaska coast -- and the winter ice is forming." The magazine website adds: "While the ice doesn't pose any near-term danger, the delay highlights the logistical challenges facing Shell as it launches the first offshore Arctic drilling to take place in U.S. waters since the 1990s."
Alaska Dispatch has no first-hand knowledge of how difficult the challenges are; unlike Popular Mechanics, which got to visit one of Shell's rigs off Alaska's shores, Shell never fulfilled a request from Alaska Dispatch to board one of its drillships. So we must rely on Popular Mechanics for what it's like aboard the Kulluk, Shell's drillship in the Beaufort Sea.
Over the following days the rig was quickly secured for transport, but the operation faced several hurdles. First, there were 83 men onboard, a number that was supposed to go down to just 17 for the trip south. By Alaska standards, the weather remained stable, yet flights between the rig and the company's facilities on land at Prudhoe Bay were delayed for days at a time. Shell had contracted with PHI, Inc., a helicopter services company that is ubiquitous in the Gulf of Mexico. But the company's Sikorsky S-92 helicopters had not been prepared with de-icing equipment, and the pilots I spoke with lacked experience flying on the North Slope.
A second issue concerned the Aiviq tug's fuel reserves. Shell had committed to laying a containment boom out on the ocean surface during vessel-to-vessel refueling, but the seas had been too rough to do that. The tug needed to refuel before starting to haul the Kulluk.
Finally, the Kulluk was required to offload its wastewater to another vessel for eventual disposal on land, but those operations also proved vulnerable to disruption by rough seas.
Regardless of whatever the challenges may be, Shell's Alaska flack, Curtis Smith, has said the Netherlands-based oil giant will continue to pursue offshore drilling in the Arctic next summer.