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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Sea Trial Leaves Shell's Arctic Oil-Spill Gear "Crushed Like A Beer Can"

UPDATE on Congressional interest in this story here.

Shell Oil has been building and testing equipment designed for the Arctic Ocean here in Puget Sound. In September, a key test of underwater oil-spill equipment was a spectacular failure.

It forced the energy giant to postpone drilling into oil-bearing rocks beneath the Arctic Ocean until next summer. Shell and its federal regulators have been tight-lipped about the failed test.

But a freedom-of-information request reveals what happened beneath the surface of Puget Sound.

The final obstacle to Arctic drilling

Before Shell can drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, it needs to prove to federal officials that it can clean up a massive oil spill there. That proof hinges on a barge being built in Bellingham called the Arctic Challenger.

The barge is only one component of Shell’s plans for handling oil spills off the remote north coast of Alaska. But the Obama Administration won’t let oil drilling get under way until the 36-year-old barge and its brand new oil-spill equipment are in place.

On board the Arctic Challenger is a massive steel "containment dome." It's a sort of giant underwater vacuum cleaner. If efforts to cap a blown-out well don’t work, the dome can capture spewing oil and funnel it to a tanker on the surface.

The Arctic Challenger passed several US Coast Guard tests for seaworthiness in September. But it was a different story when its oil-spill containment system was put to the test in 150-foot-deep water near Anacortes, Washington.

The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement required the test of the oil-spill system.

“Breached like a whale"

According to BSEE internal emails obtained by KUOW, the containment dome test was supposed to take about a day. That estimate proved to be wildly optimistic.

  • Day 1: The Arctic Challenger's massive steel dome comes unhooked from some of the winches used to maneuver it underwater. The crew has to recover it and repair it.
  • Day 2: A remote-controlled submarine gets tangled in some anchor lines. It takes divers about 24 hours to rescue the submarine.
  • Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale,” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at BSEE headquarters.

    Then the dome sinks more than 120 feet. A safety buoy, basically a giant balloon, catches it before it hits bottom. About 12 hours later, the crew of the Challenger manages to get the dome back to the surface. “As bad as I thought,” Fesmire writes his BSEE colleague. “Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”

Representatives of Shell Oil and of BSEE declined to answer questions or allow interviews about the mishaps. In an email, Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh writes:

Our internal investigation determined the Arctic Challenger's dome was damaged when it descended too quickly due to a faulty electrical connection, which improperly opened a valve. While safety systems ensured it did not hit the bottom, buoyancy chambers were damaged from the sudden pressure change.

Environmental groups saythe Arctic Challenger’s multiple problems show that Shell isn’t prepared for an Arctic oil spill.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The Arctic Challenger on the Bellingham waterfront", "fid": "1153", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201211/DSC_8535.JPG", "attribution": "Credit John Ryan"}]]Environmentalist Todd Guiton lives on Sehome Hill in Bellingham. His condo overlooks the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, where the Arctic Challenger has been under construction for a year now.

“Just look out our window, and there it is,” Guiton says.

He says the steel dome came back from its sea trial with its top half crumpled like a piece of paper. In the two months since, Guiton says, he’s been watching Shell contractors rebuild the dome and reinforce it with more steel.

“This has to be a very beefy operation to do what they claim it’ll do,” Guiton says.

It failed under very calm, tranquil conditions in the best time of year up here in the Pacific Northwest. If it can’t handle the best we have here, I really have my doubts it can handle even a little adversity in the Arctic.

Spokeswoman op de Weegh wouldn’t say what Shell is doing to fix the dome or when it would be ready for testing again.

Earlier in November, the Obama administration called for more research into handling oil spills in the far North.

The Arctic Research Commission said oil-spill experiments and tests need to be done in the Arctic Ocean and that federal regulators need more staff or more time to properly vet proposals for offshore drilling at the top of the world.

Emails obtained by KUOW between Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, and his colleague at BSEE.

Help John Ryan follow up on this story.

Year started with KUOW: 2009