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Approval requested for repairs to icebreaker in Shell’s Arctic quest

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Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 21.06.27By Jennifer A. Dlouhy: 9 July 2015

WASHINGTON – Shell is making plans to repair an icebreaker that plays a pivotal role in its Arctic drilling program, even as clues emerged Thursday about what might have torn a meter-long gash in the vessel.

Arctia Offshore, the owner of the Shell-contracted MSV Fennica, has asked the U.S. Coast Guard to approve plans for sealing the hole in the ship’s hull. As of late Thursday, a final ruling had not been made.

But there was new information on what might have gouged the vessel as it traveled away from the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor on July 3.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey of the ocean bottom on Wednesday discovered a previously uncharted shoal along the vessel’s path that may have shaved 11 to 24 feet off an expected 45-foot clearance. The Fennica, a Finnish ship built to be resilient even amid crushing blows from ice, has a draft of 28 feet.

A broadcast went out to mariners alerting them of the shoal.

A certified Alaska marine harbor pilot was on board the vessel when a ballast leak provided the first sign of the problem. After the icebreaker returned to the port, the 39-inch by 2-inch hole was discovered.

The Coast Guard is still investigating what caused that breach, spokesman Shawn Eggert said.

“We’re not saying the shoal was the cause,” Eggert said.

Shell and Arctia have been weighing how to repair the Fennica, following assessments by marine specialists earlier this week.

If welding can close the hole on-site, Shell may see little delay to its plans for drilling in the Chukchi Sea later this month. But those operations could be significantly delayed – or even derailed – if more substantial repairs are required in dry dock.

Any repairs, whether they are conducted on site or more than 1,000 miles away, could be subject to additional Coast Guard review and inspections.

Straightforward job

A gash like the one in the Fennica would be relatively straightforward to repair on-site, said Dan Magone, founder of Dutch Harbor-based Resolve-Magone Marine Services, a local repair company.

“I’ve spent my career doing this kind of work. It’s a minor operation,” Magone said. “The only thing big about this job is the amount of oversight and concern” it is drawing.

The Fennica is critical to Shell’s plans as one of the two dedicated ice-management vessels for the company’s planned Arctic drilling and the only one carrying a unique capping stack that can be deployed in an emergency.

Limited time frame

Shell is still waiting on drilling permits for wells at its Burger Prospect, about 70 miles off Alaska. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has been vetting Shell’s permit applications.

Even if they are awarded, Shell must wait until Wednesday to begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea – and it must halt operations by Sept. 28. It is also waiting on ice to clear within 30 miles of its planned wells.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith confirmed that three of its vessels are already at the site, including the second icebreaker in the company’s Arctic fleet, the MSV Nordica. Those waters are clear, but there is still ice nearby.

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