In September, two Shell ships sent drill bits into the U.S. Arctic Ocean floor for the first time in more than two decades. They created top holes and initial drilling for two exploratory wells. Drilling ended on the last day of October.
The grounding in the North Pacific is not a wellhead blowout in the Arctic, and not a drop of oil has been detected in the water. But environmental groups say it's a bad sign.
Drill rigs in Arctic waters could be affected by ice any time during the four-month open water season, said Heiman of the Pew Environment Group. The other threats — near hurricane-force winds compounded by cold and darkness — were seen in the grounding, she said.
“We know that in the Arctic and in the gulf it's not uncommon to have pretty high seas, and you have to take precautions,” she said. “If you're going to dill in those types of conditions, or even move vessels in those conditions, you have to have strong, Arctic-specific gear and equipment and safety training. It has to be very vigorous, and I don't think we're there yet.”
Shell was fortunate in some ways, she said, that the Kulluk experienced problems near Kodiak.
“Up in the Arctic, you are 1,000 miles away from any Coast Guard station and the kind of response they were able to deploy in Kodiak,” she said. The Coast Guard the last few summers has staged equipment and personnel in the Arctic. That has meant a couple of helicopters and possibly a cutter, Heiman said. It in no way can be compared to the Gulf of Mexico and the resources available for BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“It's remote. There are no roads. There's no real, true spill response capability like you would have in the gulf, where you have ports and harbors and boats and fishing boats and vessels everywhere,” she said.
Shell has said its preparations will allow it to operate safely far from the Coast Guard base. Like a backcountry camper, Shell has promised to carry all the response equipment needed to the isolated drilling sites: a fleet of more than 20 response vessels that could respond in either the Beaufort of the Chukchi.
Shell spokesman Smith said the company remains confident in its ability to operate safely.
“We encountered severe weather basically all summer long in the Arctic,” he said. “While it was challenging, the personnel and the assets and the rigs performed very well.”
When a massive ice flow moved toward the drill ship operating in the Chukchi after less than a day of drilling, Shell released the vessel from anchors and moved out of the way.
“As disappointing as that was, given how long we had waited to start drilling — we were only a day in — we had the time and made the decision to disconnect from anchors and safely move off,” Smith said. “That's how responsible operators work in the Arctic, or anywhere, really.”
The Aiviq has towed the Kulluk more than 4,000 miles and experienced conditions seen before the grounding, Smith said. It was no accident, Smith said, that additional vessels were standing by in Seward.
It's too soon to know what led to the grounding, Smith said, but the failure of the Aiviq's engines for a time after the initial separation and the inability to re-establish an ideal tow connection were factors.
“It's clear that a sequence of unlikely events compounded over a short period of time, underscored by the complete loss of power to the engines of the Aiviq,” he said.