Shell Game: The Chukchi Gets a Reprieve
Royal Dutch Shell has acknowledged it won’t be drilling any off-shore oil wells in the Chukchi Sea this fall. You might have thought the decision was inevitable, with Shell’s containment barge still uncertified in Bellingham, Washington. But the triggering event is bigger and more troublesome.
In one of the certification tests, the containment dome, which Shell proposes to lower over a leaking oil well, “suffered damage” according to Shell’s cryptic press release.
Over the last several days, Shell has successfully completed a series of tests of the first-ever Arctic Containment System. However, during a final test, the containment dome aboard the Arctic Challenger barge was damaged. It is clear that some days will be required to repair and fully assess dome readiness.
The whole story isn’t disclosed yet, but what’s come out is pretty ugly, according to the Los Angeles Times:
Sources familiar with the testing said the mishap occurred when one of several clump weights was placed into about 160 feet of water to mark the area of a theoretical oil spill, to see if the containment dome aboard the barge could be lowered over it.
“When they came back to find it, it [the weight] was lost, submerged into the silt,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.
Engineers launched a mini-submarine known as a Remotely Operated Vehicle, which is part of Shell’s plan for putting any oil spill containment equipment into place, to help get the oil containment dome carried aboard the Challenger set over the “leak.”
“They got some of the weights set to hold the dome, then one of the eight winches on the dome became inoperative,” the source said. “They attempted to discover what was wrong by using the ROV, and got it tangled in the anchor lines of the dome and it sank into the silt.”
Divers were then dispatched to the sea floor to try to recover the dome without damaging the high-tech umbilical that controls it, he said.
It was not clear how much damage the dome ultimately suffered, but it apparently was enough to prompt Shell to abandon its well-drilling plans for the current season.
Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Paul Rhynard, in an email to The Times on Friday, acknowledged that there were “ROV issues” during the testing but said they had no bearing on Coast Guard certification of the vessel.
The containment dome failed. The remotely operated vehicle failed. It took divers to retrieve the failed equipment. Mind you, all this took place on the calm, cool waters of Puget Sound. WC will leave it to your imaginations how this would have played out with a real spill, with pack ice moving in, out in the stormy and freezing cold Chukchi Sea. Can we agree that this test doesn’t inspire confidence? And can we agree that if, as Shell put it, this test was “successfully completed” that we shouldn’t have much confidence in the testing process? If you had any confidence, that is.
Shell isn’t drilling anything right now; the drill rig was forced off the location by a very large pack of multi-year ice that drifted through. Shell has announced it will do limited drilling, creating “top holes” as drilling resumption point in 2013.
Can someone explain to WC why Shell, on its track record, can be trusted with a pair of scissors, let alone a pristine arctic environment?