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Shell: Oil spill barge close to beginning Arctic journey

Posted on August 7, 2012 at 9:11 am by Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Alaska,

The newly renovated barge that Shell is counting on to help clean up any oil spill in Arctic waters may soon be ready to set sail from a Washington state shipyard.

Shell and Superior Energy have been winnowing down a once-400-item to-do list for the Arctic Challenger barge, based on Coast Guard inspections while it was being built in Everett, Wash.

If it clears Coast Guard inspections and successfully passes an oil spill containment drill for Interior Department regulators, the barge could be ready to begin its journey north in about a week, said Shell Oil Co. spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh.

The final tests of the Challenger barge will coincide with a trip by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to the area. The planned trip later this week will be Salazar’s fourth visit to Alaska since taking office; the excursions have generally been during August and other long congressional recesses.

Salazar is expected to meet with Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and will likely visit the North Slope and National Petroleum Reserve while in the state. But Interior Department officials who confirmed the trip did not say whether Salazar would meet with Shell officials while there.

“During his visit, Salazar is expected to discuss balanced energy development, management of public lands and issues facing Alaska’s native and rural communities,” said Interior spokesman Blake Androff.

The Coast Guard’s approval of the Arctic Challenger barge is one of the last physical hurdles for Shell’s planned drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer. The Environmental Protection Agency is still considering a Shell request to exceed emissions limits in air pollution permits governing the operations. And the company still needs to secure specific well drilling permits before it can send drill bits into the seabed.

According to the Coast Guard, areas that needed changes and improvements before the Challenger can secure a “certificate of inspection” included safety systems, structural issues and electrical equipment, as well as fire detection systems and cooling machinery.

Both Coast Guard and Shell representatives have described the punch list as common for vessels under construction.

Originally built in 1976, the Arctic Challenger barge has been upgraded to serve as Shell’s main containment vessel.

“We have made progress on a list of items for review,” said op de Weegh. “We’re pleased with the progress on this first-ever Arctic containment system.”

An incline test of the barge — designed to help evaluate its stability in exposed waters — was completed on Aug. 2. Coast Guard Commander Chris O’Neil said the agency was reviewing data from the test with the American Bureau of Shipping.

A sea drill that would further demonstrate the barge’s readiness is expected soon.

Shell also must convince regulators at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that the barge can successfully contain oil in case of a blowout at one of the company’s planned wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska.

The Interior Department’s approval of Shell’s broad blueprint for drilling in those waters and pending drilling permits for unique wells are contingent on the company satisfying terms of its oil spill response plans for the region, which included the containment system.

The barge is set to be located roughly in between planned drilling sites in both seas.

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