Exploratory Arctic drilling may be postponed a year


Delays in the readiness of an oil spill containment vessel may prevent Shell Oil from conducting exploratory drilling in the Arctic this year as planned. Sea ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas has already led the oil company to delay plans, but an incomplete retrofit of Shell Oil containment vessel Arctic Challenger might require a postponement.

If the company can't ready the vessel for Coast Guard certification, "there won't be Shell exploration efforts that will occur this year," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar during an Aug. 13 press call, reports National Journal.

"If they had gotten it done, they may already be up there today," he added. The Interior Department says Shell would have to shut down drilling Sept. 24 in the Chukchi Sea and by Oct. 31 in the Beaufort Sea.

Shell Oil spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said progress on the retrofit is steady, but that the company has no set timeline for completion of the barge's certification. "This is the world's first arctic containment system," she said, adding that the ship must also undergo sea trials before the Coast Guard will certify it. Shell has contracted with Superior Energy Marine Technical Services to conduct the retrofit.

A statement from Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick said the service is ready to inspect construction and systems aboard the containment vessel.

"The Coast Guard has been actively engaged in the certification of the Arctic Challenger since Shell first proposed the project in August 2011," he said, adding that while the service strives to facilitate maritime commerce, it "will not sacrifice safety for the sake of expediency."

The Coast Guard monitored Aug. 2 a stability test on the vessel that involved testing its center of gravity by shifting weights transversely across the ship. The service is now reviewing the data, Frederick said.

He also confirmed that vessel retrofit has been responsible for four illegal discharges of fluid. In three cases, the ship discharged a quart each time of hydraulic fluid while in another a skiff had a mechanical malfunction and spilled some diesel fuel. In all cases, the discharges were self-reported, within a containment area and cleaned up, Frederick said.

For more:
- read the Coast Guard statement on the status of the Arctic Challenger

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