Emails say Shell containment dome 'crushed like a beer can' in test

Royal Dutch Shell's containment dome was "crushed like a beer can" earlier this year in Puget Sound, during failed sea-trial tests that raised questions about the oil giant's ability to respond to an oil spill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean, according to a Seattle radio station.

The beer-can observation belongs to Mark Fesmire, head of the Alaska office of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). It and other details about what went wrong with the testing are included in emails obtained by KUOW through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The containment dome is basically an undersea vacuum cleaner designed to suck up gushing oil beneath the water's surface, the article notes. In what Shell officials have called an unprecedented move, the company proposed including the containment dome in its Arctic efforts as a last line of spill-response defense, for use if drilling mud, a blowout preventer and a capping stack fail. Federal regulators said the containment dome must be on scene near the drilling areas before the company can tap into oil-bearing zones.

The accident damaging the dome and the inability to certify its barge were key reasons Shell downscaled its Arctic ambitions this summer. Instead of drilling deep into oil-bearing zones roughly a mile beneath the sea floor, the company was merely allowed to conduct preliminary well work to set the stage for next summer.

The containment system is ready to accompany Shell's return to the Arctic next summer, said Anchorage spokesman Curtis Smith. "It is classified and certified," he said.

The emails obtained by KUOW from BSEE provide a rare window into the mishaps associated with the dome's undersea tests.

In a summary of email exchanges involving Fesmire and another BSEE official, the station reports:

… The containment dome test was supposed to take about a day. That estimate proved to be wildly optimistic.

  • Day 1: The Arctic Challenger's massive steel dome comes unhooked from some of the winches used to maneuver it underwater. The crew has to recover it and repair it.
  • Day 2: A remote-controlled submarine gets tangled in some anchor lines. It takes divers about 24 hours to rescue the submarine.
  • Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale,” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at BSEE headquarters. "

Then the dome sunk more than 120 feet, saved from crashing to the seafloor by a safety buoy. Recovering it took 12 hours.

Read more at KUOW.

In other Shell news, a BBC report from the Alaska village of Point Hope, is getting a lot of attention for a quote attributed to Pete Slaiby:

"There's no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people's subsistence? My view is no, I don't believe that would happen."

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or