Kulluk Aground on Sitkalidak Island - Photo by USCGThe development of offshore oil resources is seen by most Alaskans as being vital to the long-term economic health of the state. Unlike most other states, Alaska depends almost exclusively on royalty payments derived from extraction of its natural resources to fund the cost of government services. It is important for us to ask, “Is Shell Alaska Truly Arctic Ready?”

Shell Alaska has been given the opportunity to drill for oil in the Bering and Chuckchi Seas. It is imperative for Alaskans that Shell conduct its operations in a flawless and transparent manner; there is no room for error. The future of off shore oil development in Alaska depends on Shell getting it right the first time; there will be no second chances.

To most interested observers, it is apparent that in spite of the massive investment Shell has made in Alaska, it is not ready to operate responsibly. In a January 2012 press release, Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby says that his company is “Arctic Ready”. The company’s track record for 2012 doesn’t do a good job of supporting this claim.

Shell Alaska was in the news repeatedly during 2012 for all the wrong reasons. No news would have been good news for residents of the Great Land. A recap of incidents during 2012:

  • July 14, 2012 – The drillship Noble Discoverer drug anchor near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The incident prompted underwater inspections to insure no damage had occurred to the vessel.
  • September 15, 2012 – A steel containment doom failed a test trial near Anacortes, Washington in 150 feet of water. The dome unexpectedly sinks and then makes an uncontrolled assent to the surface. A Federal employee on scene described it as, “…basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”
  • October 12, 2012 – The Arctic Challenger oil well blowout response vessel passes its final inspections. Deployment of Shell’s oil response barge was delayed due to safety concerns and failure to pass Coast Guard inspections.
  • November 29, 2012 – The Noble Discoverer is issued a port stay control detention by the Coast Guard after an inspection revealed significant concerns with the ship’s propulsion and safety management systems.
  • December 28, 2012 – The MV Aiviq experienced a loss of power towing Shell’s Kulluk Conical Drilling Unit 50 miles off the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Sea conditions caused towlines attached to the drilling unit to part and allowed the vessel to drift free, creating a risk of a grounding and potential oil spill with its 150,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of lube oil aboard. The Kulluk ran aground at about 9 p.m. on December 31 in Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island, located near the southeast coast of Kodiak Island.
  • January 10, 2012 – The US Environmental Protection Agency issues notices of violation to the Noble Discoverer and Kulluk for excess nitrous oxide emissions generated by the drill rigs.

Most Alaskans are not anti-development. It seems like Shell would be more prepared for work in the north based on the time and funds committed to this effort. It is apparent that the company employs qualified mariners and is attempting to field vessels that are capable of operating in the arctic.

The issue appears to be more of a lack of understanding by Shell officials of life in the north and how to operate in this harsh environment safely. Many companies operate tugs, barges and supply vessels here and enjoy excellent reputations for marine safety. Management that would allow a tow to take place in the North Pacific Ocean during the winter, with only one escort tug in attendance, demonstrates this lack of understanding.

Alaskans want Shell to succeed. It’s time for the company to reflect on its management practices and take steps to avoid being in the news again.

Copyright – 2013 by Alan Sorum.

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