Shell presses on despite issues with vessel

Photo/Jim Paulin/For the Journal

Shell’s summer Chukchi Sea exploration is facing its share of glitches. The striking of a shallow, uncharted shoal by the ice management vessel Fennica, part of Shell’s support fleet, resulted in hull damage that is sending it back to the Pacific Northwest for repairs.

The Fenneca, being guided by a licensed Alaska marine pilot, hit an the uncharted obstacle while departing Dutch Harbor July 3.

A temporary patch can be put on in that Aleutians port but a permanent repair must be done at a shipyard and that will be in Vigor Industrial’s Portland, Oregon yard, Shell said.

“While we believe interim repairs could be made in Dutch Harbor, our preference is to pursue a conservative course and send it to a shipyard where a permanent fix can be performed. We do not anticipate any impact on our season as we do not require the vessel until August,” Shell spokesman Luke Miller said in a statement.

As of July 15 the Fennica is still in Dutch Harbor undergoing the temporarily repair and is expected to depart soon for Portland.

The voyage to Portland from Dutch Harbor is expected to about a week. It’s uncertain how long the repairs will take, Miller said.

The Fennica must then travel back north to the Bering Sea through the Bering Strait to the Chukchi Sea.

The vessel’s presence in the Chukchi Sea is vital because the Fennica is carrying the “capping stack,” a device needed for Shell’s undersea blowout control system. The company cannot drill wells into oil-bearing formations until the Fennica, with the capping stack, is on hand.

If the repairs go smoothly the vessel could be back with the fleet in August, which leaves plenty of time for drilling. Until then Shell can drill “top holes,” or partly-complete wells, which it did with one Chukchi Sea exploration well drilled in 2012.

Meanwhile, many of Shell’s other vessels are in Dutch Harbor preparing to depart to the Arctic including the two drilling ships, Miller said. More support vessels are departing for the Chukchi Sea and some are already there, making preparations for the arrival of the drilling ships.

Greenpeace, the environmental group that dogged Shell’s vessels in Puget Sound, has meanwhile made an appearance in Dutch Harbor, with activists protesting with signs and banners.

However, the Esperanza, the Greenpeace vessel that has given the group a capability to take actions to try and impeded Shell, has left Alaska waters and is in California, sources who are tracking the vessel said.

Shell faces another major problem, however. A 2013 regulation enacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits Shell from having more than one drilling vessel working in the Chukchi Sea within 15 miles of another drilling vessel.

Shell is taking two drill vessels to the Arctic, the semi-submersible Polar Pioneer and drillship Noble Discoverer, and has an approved exploration plan with several well locations. However, they are all within an area around the Burger discovery the company hopes to test, and no one location is more than 15 miles from another.

The first two well locations on Shell’s list are nine miles apart.

The restriction means Shell must drill the wells one at a time.

Designating additional well locations more than 15 miles from the approved wells would require a modification to Shell’s approved drilling plan, which would be a complex undertaking that might not be done in time for this year, and which could also open the plan to new legal challenges.

“Shell can still drill. They just can’t drill with drill ships within 15 miles of each other,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic coordinator for the Wilderness Society, who is familiar with Shell’s exploration plan.

The plan was approved by the U.S. Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, or BOEM, and subsequently OK’d by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Epstein said she is perplexed over why Shell designed a drilling plan with wells spaced so closely that was in obvious violation of the Fish and Wildlife Service regulation, which has existed since 2013.

The regulation says, “Operators must maintain a minimum spacing of 24 kilometers (15 miles) between all active seismic source vessels and/or drill rigs during exploration activities.”

The restriction does not apply to support vessels, the regulation states.

“There has apparently been some confusion in the industry that the rule applies only to seismic vessels, but the wording is quite clear, that drilling operations are included,” Epstein said.

The purpose of the rule on separation was to prevent increased undersea and surface vessel noise as well as disturbance from aircraft operations that would occur in a concentrated area if drill vessels were working near each other, Epstein said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has regulatory jurisdiction over polar bears and walruses, species that are in the Chukchi Sea, and which could be affected by industrial activity.

While Shell is dealing with its operational issues a mini-drama continues in a U.S. District Court in Anchorage where Judge Sharon Gleason is weighing Shell’s requests for awarding $57,797 to be paid to Shell by Greenpeace, the environmental group, in compensation for legal fees incurred by Shell.

The costs were incurred when the environmental group made filings on an injunction ordered by the court restricting Greenpeace from approaching or attempting to impede Shell’s vessels. Greenpeace was requesting that the injunction be stayed, but then dropped the requests.

The legal costs aside, court documents filed by Shell also show a blatant disregard for the injunction in a series of actions by Greenpeace as the semi-submersible Polar Pioneer departed the Port of Seattle June 15. The U.S. Coast Guard arrested 14 activists in that incident.

Two days later, at sea, activists working from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, which had been waiting for Shell in nearby Canadian waters, placed obstacles in the path of tugs towing the rig and, in a highly dangerous move, put swimmers in the water around the moving vessels.

“Greenpeace USA has taken matters into it own hands in flat defiance of the (District Court’s) preliminary injunction,” Shell asserted in a June 29 filing.

“Greenpeace USA’s conduct contradicts repeated assurances it made to this court and to the Ninth Circuit (Court of Appeals) that it had ‘no plans’ to interfere with Shell.”

In earlier hearings on the preliminary injunction in Gleason’s court, Greenpeace USA’s Arctic Campaigner Mary Sweeters told the judge three times, in responses to direct examination by a Greenpeace attorney, that she had no knowledge of any plans by her organization to attempt to block movements of Shell’s vessels.

However, on June 15, at least 14 Greenpeace USA directors and employees manned kayaks and motorized boats in an attempt to block the Polar Pioneer in Elliot Bay, near Seattle.

In the injunction, Gleason also established a safety zone of 1,000 meters for the Polar Pioneer while it was in transit on the high seas. In defiance of this, Shell said the Esperanza intercepted the Polar Pioneer and its tugs offshore Vancouver Island on the British Columbia coast.

Fast-moving rigid-hulled inflatable boats, or RHIBs, were launched from the Esperanza, at least one of them coming dangerously close to the Shell vessels, as documented by photographs taken from the Polar Pioneer that were provided to the Alaska U.S. District Court.

“The RHIBs dropped buoys with a tethered banner in front of the tug boats, leaving them no choice given their limited maneuverability to go over the top of it, whereupon the buoys-line banner was then sucked under the pontoons of the Polar Pioneer. After the contraption came up behind the rig, the RHIBs gathered it up, raced back in front of the tugs, and deployed the buoys and banner again. This occurred several times,” the filing by Shell said.

And then, in a dangerous move, “the RHIBs also dropped swimmers into the open ocean dangerously close to the drilling rig,” the court filing said.

Shell is alleging that it is entitled to legal fees for its work briefing the five motions for a stay of the injunction filed by Greenpeace. The requested order alleges Greenpeace acted in bad faith by always intending to violate the injunction, and bases the argument on the withdrawal of the motions soon after the protesters impeded the Polar Pioneer in Seattle and in Canadian waters.

Greenpeace countered in its own filing that it withdrew the motions based on regular legal strategies stemming from Gleason’s refusal to lift the stay, and asserted that it could have accused Shell of acting in bad faith at several points in the case, in particular its refusal to agree on an expedited briefing schedule for some of its motions.

11/20/2016 - 3:40pm