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Vol. 16, No. 4 Week of January 23, 2011
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Alaska Offshore Special Report: Shell adds spill response capabilities

Company moves Kulluk to Dutch Harbor and moves forward with plans to build a well containment system for 2011 drilling season

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

Unable to drill in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas during 2010 following a U.S. Department of the Interior outer continental shelf drilling moratorium in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Shell is meantime beefing up its already substantial Arctic offshore response capabilities, in hopes of drilling in 2011.

Kulluk to Dutch Harbor

During an Aug. 28 tour of Shell’s purpose-built Arctic oil spill response vessel, the Nanuq, Shell Alaska Vice President Peter Slaiby told visitors to the ship docked at Seward that the floating drilling platform, the Kulluk, was en route from Canada’s Mackenzie Delta to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, where Shell will prepare the vessel to support its oil spill contingency plans for the summer 2011 drilling season.

“Two days from today the Shell-owned vessel, the Kulluk, is going to arrive in Dutch Harbor,” Slaiby said. “… Over the winter of 2011 we plan on getting the Kulluk re-activated. We’ve spent $200 million in improvements to the Kulluk but we’ve had it up in the Mackenzie Delta for the last two years, so we have to bring it back and re-heat it, get it ready to go to an active state.”

Shell plans to use the drillship Noble Discoverer (previously called the Frontier Discoverer) to drill Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea wells in 2011 and has planned to use that same drillship to drill a relief well, should a well blowout occur.

Slaiby stressed that Shell sees the possibility of a well blowout during its Arctic offshore drilling operations as highly unlikely. But as a consequence of heightened concerns about the practicalities of relief well drilling, Shell is going to use the Kulluk as a standby rig for drilling a relief well, should need arise, Slaiby said. The concept is that Shell would position the Kulluk and a support vessel at an appropriate location while drilling is in progress.

Containment dome

Susan Moore, Shell Alaska planning and operations team lead, said that Shell is also going to build a portable dome structure, along the lines of the equipment that BP eventually used in the Gulf of Mexico to capture oil escaping from the Macondo well. If necessary the dome could be lowered by crane from a surface vessel, to be positioned over a seafloor well head, to prevent oil from an out-of-control well gushing into the sea. The dome would be connected by pipe to a surface vessel, for offloading oil from the well.

Shell has just completed its selection of a design concept for the system and is planning to have fabrication completed by May 31, 2011, for crew training in June and field deployment in July, Moore said.

“Our next step in very short order is going to be writing up our funding proposal and going out for bids,” she said.

Substantial capability

Meantime, Shell is maintaining the Arctic offshore spill response capability that it established several years ago, including the Nanuq and the Arctic Endeavor, an oil spill response barge. Both of these vessels are equipped with substantial spill response inventories, including boom, skimmers and workboats. The concept is to have a spill response fleet on site, ready to move into action within an hour should Shell run into a problem with a well that it is drilling. The fleet includes ice breakers, mini-barges and a 500,000-barrel oil tanker.

Shell has also staged additional spill response equipment on four landing craft in the Chukchi Sea coastal village of Wainwright, Moore said.

Skimming equipment on the oil spill response vessels include “rope mop” systems, which use oil-attracting bristles to pull oil from the water at high rates. These can be deployed from the side of a vessel, to lift oil from open water, and between ice floes if necessary.

In-situ burning of spilled oil is another potential spill response technique — oil spill response consultant Al Allen told visitors to the Nanuq that in-situ burning had proved highly successful in the Gulf of Mexico, with 411 burn operations removing a total of more than 300,000 barrels of oil from the water.

Ice-rated response vessel

Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore built the ice-rated Nanuq for Shell’s Arctic exploration program. The vessel has a rounded and strengthened bow that can withstand any ice conditions that the vessel would encounter in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas, said Capt. Dave Morris of Edison Chouest during the Aug. 28 tour of the vessel — Edison Chouest operates the vessel for Shell. A computer-controlled dynamic positioning system can keep the vessel precisely stationed, as necessary, while Internet and other communications capabilities would enable the bridge house of the vessel to act as an offshore command center during a spill response emergency, Morris said.

ASRC Energy Services, a subsidiary of North Slope Native regional corporation, Arctic Slope Region Inc., operates Shell’s offshore spill response equipment, while North Slope oil response co-op Alaska Clean Seas provides similar services for nearshore and onshore operations.

Shell’s planned Chukchi Sea wells would be more than 50 miles from the coast. The Nanuq would operate close to the offshore drilling operation while the Arctic Endeavor barge would be stationed to support a nearshore response, Moore said.

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