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Shell hopes to break the ice on Arctic drilling

Energy giant has $200 million in new anchor-handling vessel


LAROSE, La. — A ship taking shape along the balmy Gulf Coast will have to sail a long way to do what it does best.

The vessel has the power to break through thick sheets of ice. It can operate at temperatures as low as 58 degrees below zero.

Those conditions don’t come up much in the Gulf of Mexico, but the oil exploration support vessel nearing completion in Larose has a mission in waters thousands of miles north, as Shell hopes to ramp up a search for oil in the Arctic.

The multipurpose vessel, which for now bears the prosaic name Hull 247, will be used primarily to tow and position anchors that keep drilling rigs in place, said Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska.

It will be “the world’s largest and most powerful anchor-handling ice breaker,” said Gary Chouest, president of Galliano, La.-based shipbuilder Edison Chouest Offshore, which is building the vessel.

It also can respond to oil spills and maneuver large blocks of ice.

Edison Chouest won the $200 million Shell contract in 2009, after building three other ice-breaking ships over two decades.

“It was a pretty complex design, a pretty big challenge,” said Gary Rook, Edison Chouest’s technical director, noting that the ship is the company’s largest project to date. “That was over and above what most people do in this area.”

It is the length of a football field and it carries half a million gallons of oil to fuel engines that produce 30,000 horsepower, according to the builders.

Edison Chouest spent more than $2 million to upgrade its equipment for the project, Rook said, and tapped the knowledge of experts in Finland and Canada to ensure the ship was equipped to handle the Arctic climate.

About 800 people are working on the vessel.

After its planned completion in the spring, the ship will travel through the Panama Canal, up the West Coast, through the Bering Strait and into the Beaufort Sea near Alaska.

Breaking ice, quietly

Shell has been engaged in a years-long struggle with regulators and environmentalists to drill off the coast of Alaska, an endeavor that has cost the company nearly $4 billion to date, Slaiby said.

Its fourth oil exploration proposal for the Beaufort Sea received approval from federal regulators in August, a first step in a many-tiered process toward finding and producing oil and gas there.

Previous efforts ended because of legal challenges, federal restrictions or voluntary withdrawals, Slaiby said. Earlier this week, a group of environmental organizations filed suit opposing Shell’s latest plan.

In addition to worries about Arctic oil spills, environmentalists say large vessels create subsea noise that disrupts marine animals’ migration patterns.

That’s why Hull 247’s designers included $12 million worth of equipment to mitigate noise.

“It was a challenge to design something that could sustain heavy ice impacts and, at the same time, be quiet,” Chouest said.

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