DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska, July 7, 2015 (ENS) – In another setback for Shell Oil’s summer Arctic drilling plans, a ship headed for the Shell prospect in the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska was forced to return to Dutch Harbor Friday after a hole was discovered in its hull.

The Fennica, a 380-foot Finnish vessel, is one of 29 ships and drilling rigs Shell plans to send to the Chukchi Sea exploration area this summer.

The ship has a key role in the drilling scenario as it was to deploy a capping stack designed to fit on top of a damaged well in case of a blowout or other emergency. It was also to keep ice chunks from interfering with operations in the drilling area.


The Fennica berthed in Dutch Harbor, Alaska (Photo by Tom Doyle)

Shell said in a statement that the Fennica’s crew found a leak in the ballast tank on Friday shortly after leaving Dutch Harbor.

A “small breach” in the hull was found measuring 39 inches long and about two inches wide. The cause of the damage has not been determined, but underwater debris, possibly left over from World War II, is known to exist on the seafloor near Dutch Harbor.

“All appropriate authorities were promptly notified and repair options are being considered,” said the statement emailed by Shell spokesperson Luke Miller to the news media.

“The Fennica was traveling in charted waters, significantly deeper than her draft, with a qualified harbor pilot,” Miller stated.

Marine experts now are assessing whether the Fennica must be moved to dry dock for repairs or if it can be repaired onsite.

“At this point we do not anticipate any impact on the season but it’s too early to know for sure. Any impact to our season will ultimately depend on the extent of the repairs,” the statement said.

Shell is in a race against time as the company has only a brief three month window for drilling that opens July 15 and closes on September 28 to complete its controversial operation.

If extensive repairs are required, Shell might have to replace the Fennica with another ship and move the capping stack off the Fennica.

The company might also have to renew approval from regulators at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, BOEM, because the changes could be deemed a “substantive” departure from the company’s existing approved exploration plan.

The BOEM approval covers the drilling of up to six wells within the Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea, located in 140 feet of water about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright, Alaska.

In addition to problem with the Fennica, there are questions about whether Shell will be thwarted in its plans to drill two wells at the same time.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service June 30 letter of authorization allowing incidental take of marine mammals during drilling says simultaneous drilling can take place only if wells are at least 15 miles apart to protect walruses that inhabit the Chukchi Sea.


Female walrus and her pup rest on an ice floe in the Chukchi Sea, June 2010. (Photo by USGS)

Shell’s plan calls for the first two wells to be spaced just nine miles apart.

The statement by Shell spokesman Miller said Shell “still intends to accomplish meaningful work in the weeks ahead. That includes drilling in the Chukchi Sea.”

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant was forced to suspend operations in 2012 following a series of disastrous errors, including the grounding of one of its vessels in Alaska.

During the first two weeks of June, demonstrators in Seattle where Shell’s Arctic drilling operation is based made their opposition known. So-called “kayactivists” surrounded Shell’s drilling rigs in brightly colored kayaks, seeking to blockade the huge vessels.

They point to BOEM’s own Environmental Impact Statement, which warned that “there is a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills” happening as a result of Shell’s Arctic oil drilling.

Shell’s critics are concerned about the impact of an oil spill on the indigenous peoples who rely on the Chukchi Sea for sustenance. They fear there is no way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic.

In addition, say critics, if oil from the Arctic is burned it will bring the planet closer to irreversible climate change.

The public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice is collecting signatures on a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to stop permitting Arctic drilling.

“Allowing oil drilling and development in the pristine and remote waters of America’s Arctic Ocean is a risky and unnecessary venture. Government scientists agree that more data is needed to fully understand the impacts of oil drilling in this region, that an oil spill could not be effectively cleaned up in the icy and stormy Arctic, and that the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic is a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill.”

“An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would devastate endangered bowhead whales, walruses, polar bears, seals and other marine wildlife,” the letter states.

“The science shows that Arctic oil development is incompatible with meeting climate goals. The rush to allow oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean moves us away from a clean energy future that doesn’t rely on dirty fossil fuels. It undermines the administration’s strong commitment to addressing climate change. It puts a sensitive ecosystem at unnecessary risk,” states the letter. “It threatens endangered and threatened species in the region and the planet as a whole.”

Earthjustice has collected more than 35,800 signatures to meet its goal of 50,000.

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