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Feds say Shell completed test for blow-out well response ahead of Arctic drilling

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Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 19.31.15Feds say Shell completed test for blow-out well response ahead of Arctic drilling

Posted on June 18, 2015 | By Jennifer A. Dlouhy

WASHINGTON — Shell employees and contractors successfully deployed and tested emergency equipment meant to respond to a blown-out well in the Arctic Ocean, federal regulators said Thursday.

The exercises, conducted Tuesday and Wednesday in waters near Washington state, focused on Shell’s capping stack, designed to sit atop a damaged well and choke off flowing oil and gas.

Officials with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement oversaw the deployment of the equipment Tuesday in waters slightly deeper than Shell’s proposed drilling sites in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska. Specifically, they watched as workers maneuvered the capping stack up and off the rear deck of the MV Fennica and 150 feet below the surface of the water.

On Wednesday, the BSEE officials oversaw pressure testing of the equipment that confirmed it could function properly under pressures that exceed those expected at Shell’s planned wells in the Arctic.

Further details were not provided Thursday.

A similar deployment exercise of Shell’s 20-foot-tall steel containment dome in March also was deemed a success initially.

Related story: Shell conducts drills with Arctic oil spill response system

But a letter later released by the safety bureau outlined federal regulators’ concerns with some incidents during the containment dome’s deployment.

In one case, a tugboat anchored near Shell’s emergency response barge, the Arctic Challenger, dragged anchor amid gale-force winds. And when workers on another vessel tried to reach the tugboat by radio, that contact was not “readily established.” Ultimately, two small workboats pushed the tugboat Corbin Foss back into position.

The April 16 letter, written by BSEE’s Alaska regional director, Mark Fesmire, to Shell and released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Greenpeace, also directed the company to develop a plan for keeping the Arctic Challenger and its workers out of danger if shifting wind carries flammable gases toward the barge.

Fesmire advised Shell to change the way its employees and contractors manipulate the heavy, stiff gas and oil production hoses and other equipment connecting the containment dome to the Arctic Challenger, because multiple workers were “operating in hazardous positions” during the March deployment drill.

Ultimately, Fesmire said, “Shell demonstrated to us that the dome can be deployed and operated as designed, and that it is capable of pumping at a rate greater than the currently calculated worst-case discharge of 25,000 barrels of fluid per day.”

“There were technical and operational difficulties which Shell encountered,” Fesmire added, “but Shell was able to overcome these difficulties in a timely manner and proceed with the exercise.”

Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace, said the episode — and the initial reports from BSEE that did not document the problems on scene — raise questions about transparency.

“The Obama administration must be as transparent as possible about these critical tests,” Donaghy said.

“The basic functionality of this response equipment is crucial,” Donaghy said. “If Shell can’t operate its safety equipment in Washington without nearly catastrophic errors, it clearly has no hope of ever being Arctic ready.”

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company is continuing to work with the safety bureau to “upgrade a handful of systems and processes before the Arctic Containment System is dispatched to the Chukchi Sea.”

“Third-party feedback is exactly why we do these sorts of exercises — to test our assets and processes in an effort to continually improve upon them,” Smith said. “We welcome the extra set of eyes and value the time and attention regulators and the Coast Guard have dedicated to all of Shell’s Arctic-bound assets.”

The containment dome — already certified and part of Shell’s Arctic Containment System — is set to be stationed at Kotzebue Sound, a roughly eight-day journey away from Shell’s planned wells. Federal regulators are requiring Shell to keep the capping stack in a ready-to-deploy state on the M/V Fennica so it can be swiftly mobilized in case of an accident.

Shell officials point to the relatively low-pressure formation they are targeting at their Burger prospect, located in shallow water about 70 miles from the Alaska coastline. That distinguishes the Chukchi Sea wells from those now being bored into high-pressure reservoirs, deep below the seabed and miles under water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell also emphasizes there are several other barriers to a blowout, including the heavy drilling fluids that are circulated inside a well and the blowout preventer equipped with two shearing rams meant to slice through drilling pipe and seal off an open well bore in an emergency.

Safety bureau regulators are now vetting Shell’s applications for drilling permits for two wells, among the last certifications the company needs before it can begin drilling next month.


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