Kulluk underway, second drill ship to follow


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Shell Oil’s drill ship Kulluk departs Unalaska in this 2011 file photo, en route to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance work. The Kulluk is now underway for the Beaufort Sea after leaving Unalaska Aug. 20. Shell’s second drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, will follow soon for the Chukchi Sea.

File/AJOC

Things are starting to break for Shell.

The drilling vessel Kulluk is now finally en route to the Arctic from Dutch Harbor, and will arrive in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea is about two weeks, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

The second drilling vessel in Shell’s fleet, the Noble Discoverer, will likely depart Dutch Harbor for the Chukchi Sea on the weekend, Aug. 25 or 26, Smith said.

The Kulluk departed Dutch Harbor Aug. 20. It is a conical mobile drill structure built for Arctic offshore drilling that is owned by Shell. The Noble Discoverer is a conventional drillship that has been modified for Arctic summer conditions.

“Once in the Beaufort Sea, the Kulluk will remain on standby until the fall subsistence whale hunt is over,” for Inupiat Eskimo whalers, Smith said.

The Kulluk is being towed by two tugs, the Guardian and the Warrior.

Meanwhile, a spill response barge chartered by Shell to support its drilling is still in Bellingham, Wash., undergoing U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspections, Smith said.

“We are making progress with the barge but we are still days away from sailing,” he said.

Completion and final inspections of the spill response barge has been plagued by delays, partly over uncertainties within the Coast Guard and the ABS over the standards to apply to new equipment on the barge for certification, according to marine industry sources speaking on background.

The barge, leased by Shell and retrofitted with spill cleanup and containment equipment, must be on station in the Arctic before Shell can drill and complete exploration wells.

It would be stationed at a location between the two exploration areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Shell will have to wait until the spill barge is on location and final federal permits are issued before doing any drilling.

“It’s possible we could do mud line cellar work before it (the barge) arrives. That’s something we will seek to confirm with DOI (Department of the Interior). We would not proceed without having that conversation,” Smith said.

Shell hopes to have the barge on location in time to drill completed exploration wells that would penetrate hydrocarbon-bearing zones. The company also plans to drill “top holes,” or partially drilled wells, in other locations to speed the completion of the wells in 2013.

There is uncertainty as to whether Shell could drill the top-holes without the spill barge, however.

“The top hole well (drilling) would be continent on APD’s (Approvals to Drill permits). Whether the containment system would need to be in proximity to the rigs to drill top holes would be up to DOI. We know we can’t drill into hydrocarbon zones without the Arctic Challenger (the spill barge),” Smith said.

Shell has spent over $4.5 billion on its Arctic exploration program since 2007 but has been plagued by setbacks, initially by litigation and then by a revamping of government rules following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

With the new government rules in place, Shell mobilized its fleet of two drillships and support vessels that exceed 20 ships, but was then delayed by the late breakup of Arctic ice and most recently by the inspection delays on the barge.

The ice is now clearing in areas where Shell wants to drill.

 

Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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