The oilfield industry and environmental news media were buzzing this week over the departure of the drilling rig Noble Discoverer from Seattle for Arctic waters. Although Shell’s first try at Arctic drilling in 2012 was fraught with mishaps, the U.S. approved the company’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan in May.
Shell has contracted two rigs to drill in the Chukchi Sea, both scheduled to arrive in time for the annual ice breakup in July. The first rig arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, last week. Both were met by protesters in kayaks on departure from Seattle, but to little effect.
For workboat operators fiddling their thumbs and waiting for drilling to pick up in warmer climes, the first thought is, “Where there’s drilling rigs, there’s workboats.” And sure enough tugs are now being built to ABS’s new Ice-class standards (somewhat of a “Super Ice class’), including the 132’x41’x18′ Michele Foss. It’s the first of three Arctic-class tugs for Foss Maritime of Seattle, destined for oilfield-related work above the Alaskan Arctic.
But tugs and barges can’t supply drilling rigs in the open sea, not even in calmer waters. So if next summer sees expanded exploration, Dutch Harbor will be seeing supply boats, liquid mud boats, crewboats, etc., crowding in with the laid-up fishing boats. One would hope that existing boats built to “WNA” (Winter North Atlantic) class standards could meet Arctic Summer-class requirements, but the industry may soon see other workboats, not just tugs, being purpose built for this new oilfield.
One thing is for sure: If the regulators let Arctic drilling go forward, protesters, icebergs, and storms together won’t keep the oil companies out. Whether the wild-and-woolly fishing town of Dutch Harbor ever becomes the Port Fourchon of the Northwest, though, will remain to be seen.