WASHINGTON — Shell's Arctic oil spill response system is undergoing drills in waters near Bellingham, Washington, with government officials observing the exercises.
Shell Oil Co. is conducting the testing as it plans a new round of exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska later this year.
Shell's last venture, in 2012, was cut short when the emergency containment system was damaged during a deployment test — preventing the equipment from making it to the Arctic in time to safeguard drilling into oil- and gas-bearing zones more than 1,000 feet below the sea floor.
The system, carried and deployed from the Arctic Challenger barge, was later repaired and certified.
But while new certifications are not needed for Shell's proposed 2015 drilling, the exercises — set to begin in earnest Friday morning and span several days — are designed to put the equipment through its paces for regulators who will decide whether the company wins other critical government approvals.
"Although the Arctic Challenger was certified by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) and U.S. Coast Guard in late 2012, we volunteered to demonstrate its capabilities to regulators in advance of 2015 drilling," said Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman.
Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno and Assistant Interior Secretary Janice Schneider are among the officials set to watch as the containment system is deployed, at Shell's invitation.
U.S. Coast Guard inspectors also are on the scene "to witness the readiness of the crew, confirm the seaworthiness of the vessel and ensure compliance to U.S. and international laws, regulations and standards," said a safety bureau spokesman.
Some preliminary exercises were under way in Samish Bay on Thursday.
Originally built in 1976, the Arctic Challenger barge underwent a major retrofit in a Bellingham, Wash., shipyard so it could serve as the launching pad for Shell's containment system. The system's centerpiece is a containment dome, meant to be lowered over a blown-out well to capture flowing oil and gas and help funnel it to a nearby tanker.
"This one-of-a-kind containment vessel will be on stand-by while operations are underway in the Chukchi Sea this summer – serving as a fourth line of defense against an unlikely discharge," Shell's Smith said.
The company points to other barriers, including heavy drilling muds inside a well that can keep oil and gas from flowing up and out of it, and blowout preventers equipped with two shearing rams capable of cutting through drill pipe to seal off the well hole. Shell counts its separate capping stack, like one successfully used atop BP's failed Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, as a third protection.
In the drills Friday, the containment dome will be deployed from the Arctic Challenger barge and its pumping capability will be tested.
The safety bureau spokesman cast the demonstration as "part of Shell's preparation to carry out its proposed exploration drilling activities."
When the emergency containment system went through a deployment drill in the Puget Sound in 2012, a containment dome meant to fit over a damaged well surfaced unexpectedly and then swiftly sunk, with its top "crushed like a beer can," according to a safety bureau regulator's written account of the episode.
The incident provided fodder to Arctic drilling foes and Shell's critics in Congress, including then-Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who questioned how emergency equipment that failed in calm waters could ever hope to succeed during an emergency in the more turbulent Arctic Ocean.
On Thursday, environmental activists pounced on the development, casting the tests as an ill-suited match for real-life conditions in less-predictable Arctic waters.
"In just over 100 days, Shell could begin drilling in the Arctic with spill response equipment like the Arctic Challenger that has never been tested in Arctic conditions," said Greenpeace USA spokesman Travis Nichols. "Bellingham, Wash. in March is not Barrow, Alaska in October. Even if these tests appear successful, they have almost no bearing on whether or not Shell can safely drill in the Arctic."
Companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico are required to prove they can swiftly contain runaway subsea wells. And at least two major containment systems are widely available for emergencies in the Gulf, with companies joining consortia or paying fees to guarantee access to the equipment and the containment capability.
But no similar requirements exist in U.S. Arctic waters, though they are included in Arctic drilling standards newly proposed by the Interior Department.
When the Interior Department approved Shell's broad Arctic exploration plans for 2012, it said individual drilling permits were contingent on the company satisfying the terms of its oil spill response plan, including a system for capping and containing a runaway underwater well.
Conservationists say an oil spill in the region could irrevocably damage the pristine and fragile Arctic ecosystem, with environmental effects eclipsing those caused in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground near Prince William Sound.