2013 season in doubt as Shell moves drill rigs to Asia for repairs

Shell broke its weeks-long silence on the status of its two Arctic drill rigs Feb. 11. The Kulluk and Noble Discoverer, two drill vessels used by Shell for its 2012 Arctic drilling, will be moved from Alaska to Asia for repairs, the company said in a statement Feb. 11.

The Kulluk, a conical drill vessel, was damaged in a grounding near Kodiak Island Dec. 31. Noble Drilling’s drillship Noble Discoverer, under a long-time contract to Shell, is now in port in Seward due to an engine malfunction.

“Based on ongoing evaluations of the condition of the Kulluk it has been determined that the rig, pending an approved tow plan, will first be moved to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and then dry-towed to a shipyard in Asia with a suitable dry dock,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in a statement.

The Kulluk will likely be moved to Dutch Harbor in a “matter of days,” Smith said. Both vessels will be headed to Asia, on their respective heavy-lift ships, in three to six weeks, he said.

“Additionally, Noble Drilling, in consultation with Shell, has made the decision to dry-tow the Noble Discoverer from Seward to a shipyard in Korea. The outcome of further inspections for both rigs will determine the shipyard schedule and timing of their return to service,” Smith said.

“Dry-towing is a time-efficient way to get both rigs to suitable shipyards to begin necessary work that will allow us to better assess our options,” he said in the statement.

Smith said “dry tow” meant carrying the vessels with a heavy-lift vessel, a large ship that maneuvers alongside the drill vessel, is partly submerged, and then is raised with the drill ship to be carried. Heavy-lift vessels were used to carry jack-up rigs from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Asia to Cook Inlet in 2011 and 2012.

Meanwhile, the effects of this on Shell’s 2013 summer exploration program are still unclear.

“We have not yet made any decisions on the 2013 drilling in Alaska. Mapping the next steps for the Kullulk and the Noble Discoverer is a multi-faceted operation and today’s update is a result of those new plans being solidified,” Smith said.

The extent of damage on the Kulluk was not given in the statement, but a state official familiar with the grounding event said that the entry to saltwater inside the vessel is significant.

“Saltwater damage to electrical systems could be a serious issue in a sophisticated vessel like the Kulluk,” said Larry Dietrick, chief of Alaska’s oil spill response division.

Shell has acknowledged damage to electrical systems from saltwater but has not commented on the extent. Shell and Coast Guard officials have also acknowledged some damage to the Kulluk’s topside from heavy waves.

The Feb. 11 statement made no mention of any hull damage, but Smith said separately there was hull damage “consistent with a grounding”.

“The hull of the Kulluk, while stable and never in danger of sinking, also sustained damage consistent with a grounding. There were limited areas in which the outer hull was compromised but, fortunately, the inside compartments remained intact throughout,” Smith wrote in an e-mail.

Shell said previously the outer hull of the Kulluk has 1.5-inch thick steel. It was built to withstand Arctic conditions and the pressures of the Arctic icepack.

The Noble Discoverer encountered engine problems during a voyage from Dutch Harbor to Seward in the fall and has been in Seward, in south Alaska, awaiting approval of plans for moving it to a shipyard for repairs.

Shell experienced multiple problems in 2012 in its efforts to begin an Arctic exploration program including delays due to ice conditions. The Kulluk and Noble Discoverer were able to get to their assigned locations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and were able to drill the top sections of two exploration wells.

The wells were to be completed in the summer of 2013, but damage to the vessels has now raised doubts as to whether than can happen.

Environmental groups have meanwhile used Shell’s decision to move the rigs to raise new concerns about the company’s readiness to drill in the Arctic.

“These rigs, the non-motorized Kulluk which operated in the Beaufort Sea and the Noble Discoverer drillship which operated in the Chukchi Sea, and their associated equipment had multiple, serious problems operating in Alaska in 2012 including during marine transport,” the Wilderness Society said in a statement. “Among its problems, the Kulluk grounded and the Noble Discoverer nearly grounded (an incident in Dutch Harbor in early 2012); the brand-new Shell-commissioned tug Aiviq had simultaneous failures in four engines while at sea (during the Kulluk grounding) requiring the U.S. Coast Guard to air-drop spare parts; Shell’s oil spill containment dome collapsed catastrophically,” during a sea trial in the Pacific Northwest.”

Among other problems, the U.S. Coast Guard is also conducting an investigation of violations of operating permits by the Noble Discoverer, the Wilderness Society said. The Coast Guard, however, has clarified previously that there is no criminal investigation under way of the Noble Discoverer violations, contrary to the Wilderness Society claims.

Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected].

02/14/2013 - 9:56am