Just days before its controversial Arctic drilling expedition is set to begin, Royal Dutch Shell hit yet another speedbump on the way to the Chukchi Sea—its own vessel.
On Friday, workers discovered a 39-inch hole in the hull of an ice management ship meant to safeguard the oil giant's drilling operations in the remote waters off the coast of Alaska. Crew members and the pilot on board the MSV Fennica found the hole after a ballast tank began leaking. The cause is unknown.
The 380-foot Finnish vessel has since returned to a port in Dutch Harbor, Alaska to repair the hole. While it is not clear how long the operation will take, reports indicate that until the Fennica is fixed, the entire drilling project may be delayed.
It's the latest setback for a venture that has been met with years of resistance from climate activists, who say the pristine region is too vulnerable to be exposed to fossil fuel exploration and that Shell has too poor a safety record to be allowed into the area. Moreover, green groups and environmental scientists have long warned that investment in extreme energy projects like Arctic drilling fuels the world's growing climate catastrophe.
Anchorage Daily News reports:
In addition to duties that include scouting for wayward chunks of sea ice and preventing them from threatening other vessels, one of the Fennica’s tasks is deploying the capping stack designed to stop an oil spill.
Its critical role in the program raises questions about whether Shell will need to adjust its drilling plans, and face a delay as it attempts to resume drilling that was suspended for three years after the grounding of the drill rig Kulluk on an island near Kodiak.
Shell's years of failed attempts at drilling in the Arctic have been stymied not just by the company's own mishaps, but also by environmental activists, who have staged numerous protests—by land and sea—to block the rigs from reaching their final destination in Alaskan waters.
As news of the Fennica's rupture spread this week, Gary Braasch, a photographer who has documented Shell's exploits, told Seattle Pi on Tuesday that the most recent setback for the oil company shows "it still has a ways to go."
"Dutch Harbor — famous for king crab and still well employed by huge fish processing companies — is the last major refuel and resupply port before the 1,000 mile haul north through the Bering Strait to the drill site," Braasch said.
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Distance is an important detail in this case. As numerous opponents of the drilling project have pointed out, an accident in the wild and far-flung Alaskan waters could have more devastating consequences than other drilling catastrophes, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some see the unknown cause of the leak as a warning, while others are simply intrigued. But whatever hit the vessel on Friday, it was apparently unexpected on the route.
Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt said some marine pilots in Dutch Harbor suspect the ship may have been damaged by underwater debris, possibly left over from World War II -- a common threat in the rugged region that might not show up on charts until ships are gouged or massive anchors haul up waste.
..."Who knows what’s down there," Rick Entenmann, president of the Alaska Marine Pilots for the Western Alaska region, told ADN on Tuesday. "It could be something from some vessel back in day, but it’s got to be a pretty good-sized thing to be sticking up 9 to 11 feet above the bottom. We’re just curious as hell to see what it is."
The oil giant received the green light from the Obama administration for its drilling project in May, prompting a chorus of outrage from environmental groups like Greenpeace, 350, and Oceana, among others.
"Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth," Susan Murray, a vice president of Oceana, told the New York Times after the announcement. "Shell's need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk. Shell has not shown that it is prepared to operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and neither the company nor our government has been willing to fully and fairly evaluate the risks of Shell's proposal."
On Tuesday, Greenpeace USA spokesperson Travis Nichols said the Fennica's hull hole should serve as yet another warning sign against the operation.
"In just a few days, Shell wants to start drilling for oil in one of the most delicate ecosystems on earth," Nichols told FuelFix, an energy news blog for the Houston Chronicle. "The company clearly hasn’t improved its operations from its nearly catastrophic 2012 attempt to drill in Alaska and so we can expect news like this to continue to come in until the Obama administration finally stops this doomed project from going forward."