Shell suspends 2013 Arctic exploration program as its drill ships head to shipyards


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Shell announced Feb. 27 it is suspending its 2013 Arctic exploration program with plans to prepare equipment to resume drilling later.

“We’ve made progress in Alaska, but this is a long-term program that we are pursuing in a safe and measured way,” Marvin Odum, Shell’s Director, Upstream Americas said in a statement. “Our decision to pause in 2013 will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012.”
 Alaska remains an area with high potential for Shell over the long term, Odum said, and the company is committed to drill there again in the future. If exploration proves successful, resources there would take years to develop.
Shell completed top-hole drilling on two wells in 2012 in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, marking the industry’s return to offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic after more than a decade, the statement siad. This drilling was completed safely, with no serious injuries or environmental impact.  

After the drilling season ended, however, one of Shell’s drilling rigs, the Kulluk, was damaged in a maritime incident related to strong weather conditions. The Kulluk and the second drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, will be towed to locations in Asia for maintenance and repairs.
“Shell remains committed to building an Arctic exploration program that provides confidence to stakeholders and regulators, and meets the high standards the company applies to its operations around the world,” said Odum. “We continue to believe that a measured and responsible pace, especially in the exploration phase, fits best in this remote area,” he said.

Shell is meanwhile moving its damaged conical drill vessel Kulluk from Kodiak Island to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians to prepare the vessel for shipment onward to a shipyard in Asia. The Kulluk left under tow Feb. 26 for an expected 10-day journey to Dutch Harbor.

“Upon arrival, the Kulluk will be prepped for loading and transport via heavy lift vessel to a shipyard in Asia.

“Once in dry dock the Kulluk will be further analyzed and a scope of work assigned to the rig. The timeline associated with that scope of work will dictate the Kulluk's future role in Shell's ongoing exploration program offshore Alaska,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

The Kulluk was damaged when it grounded on an island near Kodiak Dec. 31 after being caught in a storm while being transported across the Gulf of Alaska from Dutch Harbor to a shipyard in the Pacific Northwest. Shell refloated the Kulluk Jan. 6 and towed it to a nearby protected bay for inspections.

There was “topside” damage to the vessel from wave action as well as damage to interior electrical systems from water that had entered the vessel from hatchways that were breeched, Shell has said.

The company has also acknowledged that the outer hull of the Kulluk was punctured in the grounding, but that water did not get through an inner hull.

The Kulluk was one of two drill vessels Shell used in its 2012 exploration program in offshore waters off Alaska’s Arctic coast. The other vessel, the drillship Noble Discoverer, had its own problems, encountering engine problems while being moved to Seward, a port in south Alaska.

The Discoverer is still in Seward awaiting transit to a shipyard, also in Asia, for repairs, Shell has said.

The U.S. Coast Guard has also cited Noble Drilling, the owner and operator of the drillship, for a number of violations, which have been turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice, Coast Guard officials have confirmed.

 The violations were found after the drilling season when the Noble Discoverer was in dock in Seward, Alaska. 

The Coast Guard found 16 violations on the 571-foot Noble Discoverer after it completed drilling this summer.

The violations included fire hazards and problems with the propulsion system that didn't allow the ship to operate at a sufficient speed at sea to safely maneuver in all expected conditions.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who oversees Alaska operations, had recommended the investigation be forwarded to the U.S. attorney's office, said Lt. Veronica Colbath, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

“We have not made any final decision on 2013 drilling in Alaska. The Kulluk and Noble Discoverer's return to Alaska will be dictated by the scope of work identified while in dry dock and the timeline associated with that work,” Smith said.

The Noble Discoverer completed preliminary drilling in early October at one well of the Burger-A Prospect 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. It experienced a vibration problem in its propulsion system after leaving the Chukchi Sea, and an inspection in the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor was inconclusive. The vibration problem increased, Smith said at the time, as the vessel continued to Seward, a Prince William Sound port about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, the officer in charge of marine inspection for Western Alaska, assigned inspectors to the Noble Discoverer when it reached Seward in late November. They found several major issues, which led the Coast Guard to issue a "port stay control detention" for the Liberian-flagged vessel.

 

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

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