Coast Guard relaxes certification standards for oil spill containment barge

The Coast Guard is relaxing certification standards for Shell’s oil spill containment barge. The company convinced regulators the Arctic Challenger should be considered a mobile unit. Among other things, that means its mooring system only needs to be able to weather a 10-year storm, as opposed to the more rigorous 100-year standard for fixed platforms.

Coast Guard Commander Chris O’Neil says the change was based on a more complete understanding of how the ship would be used. The Challenger is carrying equipment that could help cap an out-of-control well. During the drilling season, the Challenger will anchor in between the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea, but could move to either if there’s a spill. O’Neil says for that reason, a mobile classification made more sense.

“The 10-year criteria is an industry recognized standard that applies to mobile offshore drilling units that are capable of moving in advance of major storms,” O’Neil said.

But the change in certification standards doesn’t mean the barge has been approved to head north.

“The vessel is still under construction so we haven’t yet had time to finalize inspections in that part of the process. Some of the deficiencies that we’ve identified throughout the process included some firefighting and electrical systems. Operations manuals still have to be approved. So there are number of steps left to be accomplished before we can certificate the Arctic Challenger,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil couldn’t provide a timeline for how long that could take, saying it’s up to Shell and their contractors. Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith couldn’t specify a timeline either, but said the company is hoping to have the Challenger in the Arctic in the near future. Shell can’t start drilling until the barge is approved.

O’Neil says the Coast Guard won’t rush the process though, even that means Shell isn’t able to drill this summer.

“People need to know that if the vessel does not meet the appropriate standards, it will not receive a certificate of inspection, and that’s the bottom line,” O’Neil said.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the barge was scheduled to be inspected today, but that it has been pushed back in indefinitely.

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