Shell's Arctic drill rigs make final Alaska stop

Two weeks after announcing the end of its Arctic offshore oil exploration program, Royal Dutch Shell's Noble Discoverer drillship left Dutch Harbor Monday afternoon, the last planned stop in Alaska as it heads to the Pacific Northwest.

The company's second drilling rig that had arrived in Alaska this summer, the Transocean Polar Pioneer, is close behind.

The Noble Discoverer arrived in Dutch Harbor Sunday, said Shell Alaska spokesperson Megan Baldino. During the stop, both rigs had a crew change and resupply of fuel and groceries.

The rigs are "the heart of the program," Baldino said, and with their departure, most of Shell's 28-vessel fleet that was mobilized for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea has also left the site.

In late September, Shell announced it was ceasing exploration in Arctic waters after disappointing results from an exploratory well. The company had spent more than $7 billion on Arctic offshore exploration, including $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi Sea.

On Monday there were a "half-dozen assets remaining" in the Arctic, Baldino said, "but they're all winding down."

While in Dutch Harbor, the Noble Discoverer received an annual inspection and was found to be "free to sail," said Jon Cotton, chief warrant officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment there.


The Polar Pioneer had previously been inspected in Dutch Harbor before heading up to the Chukchi Sea, Cotton said. That inspection took place in July, according to the Coast Guard's Port State Information Exchange.

Shell did not request any safety zones -- which put a buffer in place around the ships -- for the trip to the Pacific Northwest, Cotton said. This summer, protesters in Washington state were detained and issued citations for violating the safety zones around the Polar Pioneer as the rig headed north.

This summer was the first time the Noble Discoverer had returned to Alaska since 2013, after it was found to be liable for environmental and safety violations that led to a $12.2 million plea deal in federal court by its owner-operator Noble Drilling LLC. The plea deal covered violations related to the operation of the Noble Discoverer and the drillship Kulluk, which was wrecked after it broke free from a tow in the Gulf of Alaska during bad weather and ran aground south of Kodiak Island in December 2012.

When asked what route the rigs will be taking to reach the Pacific Northwest, Baldino said "we're going to take the safest route possible," and there were no "predetermined timelines" for the vessels' arrival.

The Noble Discoverer is heading to the Port of Everett, Washington, where it will be offloading equipment. The rig will then continue to another site that "has yet to be determined," Baldino said.

Once the Polar Pioneer leaves Dutch Harbor, it will head to Port Angeles, Washington, to offload equipment. The rig is expected to leave Dutch Harbor "in the next day or two," Baldino said.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.