Bellingham oil rig project under federal scrutiny for storm safety

The drilling-support barge that’s scheduled to get under way in the Arctic Ocean this month has a big Puget Sound connection.

A Seattle shipyard refurbished the two drill rigs that are currently making the long sea journey to the Arctic. The Noble Discoverer reached Dutch Harbor this week; the Kulluk is expected in Dutch later this week. The support-barge is designed to stop any oil spills from the first two.

It’s currently under construction, and federal scrutiny, on the Bellingham waterfront. Officials say it needs a stronger design.

For the past decade, the Bellingham Shipping Terminal has mostly resembled a ghost town.  After the big pulp mill next door shut down, the terminal has gone mostly unused. The main exception is an old Horizon Lines container ship that’s been tied up here for years. It only rarely wanders out of port, like a ghost of commerce past.

But this year, Big Oil has brought the terminal back to life with hundreds of short-term jobs. Contractors for Shell Oil are turning a 38-year-old barge into an oil-spill response unit they call the Arctic Challenger.

Right now, inspectors from the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping are inside the terminal. They’re going over the Arctic Challenger with a fine-tooth comb. And that’s where Arctic drilling has hit a snag.

Those inspectors found deficiencies in the Arctic Challenger’s construction and design, things like welding, piping, and wiring. The Coast Guard says some of those problems have already been fixed. John Dwyer is the Coast Guard officer in charge of the inspections.

“We’re committed to making sure that this vessel meets all the pertinent requirements and putting certainly our best effort into doing that,” Dwyer said.

But just what requirements are pertinent is now the question.

Shell Oil is in a rush to finish the rig and get it up to the Arctic Ocean before summer vanishes and ice returns to the far North. They want to place the rig between the two proposed drilling areas, in case a well blows out in either the Chukchi or Beaufort seas off Alaska’s north coast.

Shell Oil's Arctic Challenger oil-spill response rig is under construction at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal.

Shell Oil’s Arctic Challenger oil-spill response rig is under construction at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal. (Photo by John Ryan/KUOW)

Last week, Shell told the Coast Guard it can’t meet the design standard that the Coast Guard set for it.

Shell is currently required to build the Challenger to withstand storms so big, they only blow through the Arctic once a century. Those storms make waves 25 feet tall.

But Shell is asking the Coast Guard to soften the standards. The company only wants the Challenger to be seaworthy in the somewhat smaller, more frequent storms that blow through the Arctic every ten years. Those storms generate waves up to 20 feet high.

“If the 10-year standard is a 20-foot wave, you will definitely see waves higher than that,” David Atkinson said.

Atkinson teaches geography and researches Arctic storms at the University of Victoria. The difference between 20 feet and 25 feet might not seem like a big deal. But those five feet of water make a much more powerful wave.

The greater the height to which you can raise a wave, the more energy it has coming down to smash into something,” Atkinson said.

To be precise, the higher waves would smash with 56 percent more energy than the waves that Shell wants to plan for. If a storm were to damage the Arctic Challenger, it could cripple Shell’s ability to respond to an oil spill.

Atmospheric scientist Dave Battisti with the University of Washington calls it “silly” to design a vessel for a 10-year storm, unless you’ll only be using it for a few months.

“It’s like saying I expect to see a fire in my house once every 10 years. I might live in my house for a month, in which case, maybe it’s okay to not have fire insurance. But if you’re going to live there 10 years, and you know on average every 10 years, you have a fire, you better be prepared for it,” Battisti said.

There might be enough oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to keep Shell drilling for decades. A Coast Guard permit for the Arctic Challenger would be good for five years.

Dave Atkinson says the Arctic usually has lighter winds and smaller waves than other oceans.

John Dwyer with the Coast Guard says that Shell would only get to drill in the summer. That’s the calmest time of year in the Arctic.

“If you reduce that from a year-round operation to  only a several-month operation during the best weather conditions of the year up there, that’s going to reduce your risk factor because you’re not there year-round, 10 years in a row,” Dwyer said.

Shell and its Bellingham contractors declined to be interviewed. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith also did not respond to written questions.

Atmospheric scientists say the climate of the Arctic is changing so fast that it’s hard to know how storms might behave in the years ahead. But over the past decade, it has become clear that the Arctic is rapidly losing its sea ice. That’s expected to continue as the world keeps burning fossil fuels.

Less sea ice means the wind can build up bigger waves as it blows across large areas of open water that used to be frozen.

“The ice is relatively stiff and it basically keeps the ocean from heaving.  The waves that will be experienced without sea ice, for the same storm, should be more intense,” Dave Battisti said.

The Coast Guard expects to decide what standard to apply to the Arctic Challenger in the next few days.

Ten environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the drilling on Tuesday. The groups say an oil spill will be extremely difficult to clean up in the remote Arctic Ocean–especially if oil mixes with ice.

Shell successfully tested the Arctic Challenger’s device for capping a blown-out oil well in June. The test was done in 200 feet of water in Puget Sound near Everett. But unlike the Arctic Ocean, Puget Sound lacks ice year-round.

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