Another ‘unfortunate setback’ for Shell’s Arctic plans

Sometimes it seems that Shell’s Arctic exploration plans are cursed. Certainly there are many who are cursing it, that’s for sure, and now protestors can point to yet another operational screwup that has already disrupted this summer’s drilling program.

In case you haven’t heard, the Fennica, a Finnish icebreaking PSV carrying the capping stack, an important piece of emergency well containment equipment, ran into an unknown obstruction while en route from Dutch Harbor to the Chukchi Sea in early July. Whatever the vessel hit tore a 39″ gash in the hull, forcing it to return to the harbor. While temporary repairs could have been done in Alaska, the boat is running all the way south to Portland, Ore., where it will be repaired in a Vigor drydock. Reportedly, special steel is needed for permanent repairs to its icebreaking hull.

Depending on weather, each leg of the trip should take at least a week and repairs are scheduled to take a couple days. So the Fennica will be sidelined for at least three weeks. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told reporters last week that the delay won’t affect drilling plans because the capping stack wouldn’t be needed until August, but it’s not clear if the company will receive permission to proceed without the Fennica in the fleet during preliminary drilling. The PSV is also supposed to fend off icebergs that could threaten the drill rigs.

Smith characterized the accident as “an unfortunate potential setback,” but “in no way does it characterize the preparations we have made to op-erate exceptionally well.”

Opponents couldn’t disagree more. Why, they ask, did Shell route the deep-draft Fennica through an area known to be shallow and poorly charted when deeper water was nearby? To drilling opponents, this is 2012 all over again. And what did the Fennica run into and how fast was it going? As an icebreaker, you’d think its hull could withstand a fair amount of contact before being ripped apart.

That the Obama administration keeps giving the green light to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans demonstrates once again that it isn’t the industry hater its political foes claim it to be. But if the giant oil company can’t start getting its Arctic act together soon, opponents may well find a way to shut it down for good.

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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