A Shell Oil Co. drilling rig that slipped its anchor Saturday evening in Dutch Harbor and drifted close to shore never grounded and there's no evidence it suffered any damage, according to Shell and the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard is investigating the incident, as is Shell and Noble Corp., which owns and runs the Noble Discoverer rig for Shell. It's one of several issues that Shell is working on with regulators in the final weeks before it hopes to begin drilling in the Alaska Arctic.
Shell has inspected the hull underwater with a remotely operated vehicle and found no abrasions that would indicate the ship ran aground, officials said. It plans to send divers to check further on Monday, said Pete Slaiby, a Shell vice president who is overseeing the company's Alaska operations.
"Any kind of incident like this -- a near miss -- is unacceptable, and we need to investigate why things happened the way they did," Slaiby said.
High winds in Dutch Harbor on Saturday afternoon probably led to the ship drifting, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis. Winds of 27 mph were reported with gusts of 35 mph, she said. A Coast Guard report Saturday saying that the ship only came within 175 yards of shore when witnesses said it got much closer was incorrect, Francis acknowledged. The ship, which Shell said has a 26-foot draft, had been anchored 175 yards out when it began to drag anchor, she said.
The Coast Guard is monitoring the situation. It will conduct its own inspection of the ship and review Shell's videos and diver reports, Francis said.
Based on reports from the ship, "there was no evidence of damage to the hull or of the vessel grounding," Francis said.
The crew on board noticed the ship moving, and the Lauren Foss tugboat quickly attached a line to the ship and began pulling it to deeper water, Slaiby said. The tug is part of the Shell fleet and was on standby with engines running, which was the plan for dealing with a drifting ship. The Discoverer fired up its engines, too.
"The incident really took about 28 minutes from start to stop," Slaiby said.
What happened won't affect Shell's plans to drill exploratory wells later this summer in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, according to Shell and the Coast Guard.
"A vessel slipping anchor at an anchorage, while not a common event, is not rare, either," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, the Washington, D.C.-based head spokesman. He is in Alaska for a month to monitor and learn more about expanding Arctic operations.
"There's no reason to think operations won't continue as planned by Shell," O'Neil said.
Greenpeace, which is opposed to drilling in the Arctic and following the Shell operation closely, immediately criticized the company.
"Shell can't keep its drill rig under control in a protected harbor, so what will happen when it faces 20 foot swells and sea ice while drilling in the Arctic?" Jackie Dragon, who is taking the lead on the Greenpeace Arctic campaign, said in a written statement. Efforts to speak with her Sunday were unsuccessful. She is on board the Esperanza, which is headed to the Chukchi Sea with research submarines and other equipment to study the area where Shell plans to drill.
That's an invalid comparison, Slaiby said. In the harbor, Shell used a single ship's anchor, which he said is standard, even for big ships. When Shell drills, it will secure the rig with eight, massive anchors in what's called a "spread mooring system."
"It runs out thousands of feet, 360 degrees," Slaiby said. That kind of system would interfere with shipping in a harbor, he said.
The oil company still is working through other environmental and safety issues with regulators. The generators that provide power for drilling and utilities on the Discoverer -- a 1960s-era converted log carrier -- don't meet emission levels set out in an Environmental Protection Agency air quality permit that took Shell years to secure. Shell's application for the permit was fought by environmental groups, Alaska Native organizations and a Fairbanks resident, Daniel Lum.
After spending more than $30 million to retrofit the ship with various emission control systems, Shell concluded that meeting the standards for the generators in its air permit isn't technically possible, according to its application for a revised permit. It's trying to get a waiver for this drilling season and to reach agreement with the EPA for a revised permit for next year. Slaiby said that emissions for the rig as a whole won't exceed the standards, but that the specific generators at issue go above the levels set for them. Lum, an Inupiaq who now lives in Fairbanks, already has vowed to fight any proposal that would allow more pollution into the air.
Meanwhile, Shell still is trying to get Coast Guard approval for a barge that will carry oil spill response equipment and a system for containing and handling oil from an out-of-control well. Slaiby said that system is voluntary, but federal regulators have indicated that it must pass inspection in order for Shell to receive permits to drill individual wells.
Shell is gearing up to send the Discoverer to drill three exploratory wells on the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea and a second rig, the Kulluk, to drill two wells on the Sivilliq prospect in the Beaufort Sea. It is trying to become the first oil company to produce oil from the Alaska Arctic and has spent about $4 billion acquiring leases and outfitting and building specialized ships and support vessels.
Its flotilla is in Dutch Harbor resupplying and waiting for the sea ice to melt so that the drilling rigs can get to their targets. Shell plans for the ships to leave the last week of July.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News