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Environmentalists insist feds must block Shell’s Arctic drilling while icebreaker is away

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Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 21.06.27By Jennifer A. Dlouhy: 15 July 2015

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration cannot allow Shell to launch exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean — even initial site preparation — without the company’s two contracted icebreakers on site, environmentalists argue.

One of those icebreakers, the MSV Fennica, is headed to Oregon for repairs after its hull was gouged July 3, and it could be weeks before it is able to patrol the waters around Shell’s drilling site in the Chukchi Sea.

Read more: Shell-contracted icebreaker to get repairs in Oregon

Shell is counting on the Fennica to keep ice at bay during normal drilling operations as well as any oil spill response, noted 10 environmental groups in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Because the government signed off on Shell’s broad exploration and spill response plans that rely on the Fennica, they say the vessel has to be on hand “to ensure basic safety and provide accident prevention (whether or not) drilling rigs are active.”

If regulators agree, it would rule out Shell’s hope to launch initial work at its drilling site, by excavating a 20-foot by 40-foot “mudline cellar” to hold an emergency device known as a blowout preventer below the sea floor, sheltered from icebergs.

Top-hole drilling

In 2012, Shell was allowed to excavate mud-line cellars and drill initial “top holes” penetrating more than 1,000 feet even though an emergency oil containment system was damaged and not on site. However, the Fennica was still underway near those drilling operations three years ago.

In their letter to Jewell, the environmental groups also question the decision by Shell and its contractors to put the Fennica on what they described as an unnecessarily shallow route away from the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor on July 3.

Instead of traveling in deeper water on the west side of nearby Hog Island, the Fennica sailed through a shallower stretch to the east that offered it less under-keel clearance.

The groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Oceana argue that suggests Shell has not heeded lessons from mishaps tied to its 2012 Arctic drilling campaign.

“Shell continues to experience problems that evidence a lack of attention to detail,” the groups said, adding that there is “ample justification for the Department of Interior to preclude Shell from operating

A Shell spokesman declined to comment on the letter.

Shallow waters

Marine tracking data shows the Fennica repeatedly crossed through waters with charted depths of 31.5 to 35 feet. At times, an additional 3 feet may have been gained by high tide. The Fennica, owned by Arctia Offshore, drafts at 28 feet.

A certified marine pilot was on the Fennica during the travel.

Read more: Damaged Arctic icebreaker’s route questioned

It is unclear what opened a meter-long hole in the Fennica’s hull, though shallower-than-charted areas near a rocky shoal may be to blame. After conducting an ocean-bottom survey last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned “there are certain rocky areas shallower than (30 feet) and one as shallow as (22.5 feet).”

The issues raised by the environmental groups are not hypothetical matters for the Interior Department, which is actively vetting Shell’s applications for permits to drill and weighing how the company’s planned activities can proceed under existing wildlife protections.

The Fish and Wildlife Service ruled June 30 that regulations designed to protect walruses and marine mammals impose a 15-mile buffer around simultaneous drilling operations, thwarting Shell’s plans to bore two wells that are 8.9 miles apart.

But those same protections could limit other planned Arctic activity designed to support Shell’s exploratory oil drilling.

For instance, Shell had planned to conduct ice management operations in the Hanna Shoal, where ice tends to accumulate. But the area also is a prime walrus feeding ground, and Shell is barred from intruding on it in July and August.


Shell and federal regulators at the Interior Department have been discussing the marine mammal protections for months. Records show that in documents and meetings beginning in April, Shell asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider an exception to the 15-mile separation rule for simultaneous drilling activities. The company proposed mitigation measures, including avoiding particularly noisy activities, such as anchor handling, at the same time.

“Shell asserted that the impact of narrowing the separation distance from 15 to 8.9 miles is insignificant because there are few walruses in the vicinity of their project,” a Fish and Wildlife Service director said in a June 30 letter to the company. The firm also argued that “any effects on walrus are anticipated to be short term, highly localized and biologically insignificant,” the letter said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service took a dim view of Shell’s promised mitigation measures in April, and ultimately determined the 15-mile minimum-spacing rule is unbreakable right now.

The agency said it would “consider making appropriate changes to the minimum-spacing requirement in the existing regulation.” Any such regulatory changes could allow drilling operations in closer proximity in future years.

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