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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.

Shell's Arctic Vessels: To Asia For Major Repairs, Anacortes Area For Tests

UPDATE: Shell plans to use three tugs to tow the damaged Kulluk oil rig to Dutch Harbor in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, where it will await a longer trip to an unnamed Asian drydock. Shell and the US Coast Guard have disbanded the joint command formed after the Seattle-bound rig broke free from its sole tugboat, then ran aground. Officials said the Kulluk's outer hull was damaged but not breached. They did not specify the degree of damage, saying only, "The outer hull did receive damage as expected with a vessel being aground during adverse weather." 

Another costly setback for Shell Oil Co. and its efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean: Shell needs to send its beleaguered oil rigs to Asia for major repairs, instead of to Seattle as planned.

Monday night, Shell made a brief announcement: its two floating rigs in Alaska, the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk, would head to South Korea and an unspecified Asian nation, respectively, after being loaded on board ships known as semi-submersibles.

A semi-submersible is a giant ship, often longer than two football fields, that can be partially flooded. Jonathan Ward, head of the Puget Sound Pilots, an organization of mariners expert enough to be in charge of such gargantuan ships, explained how a massive piece of machinery like a floating oil rig — itself hundreds of feet long — can piggyback on another vessel:

The ship will have a [pilot] house all the way forward. The balance of the ship is a flat deck, almost like an aircraft carrier. Then the ship is sunk — flooded. Then the rig is floated over top. Then the ship is pumped out and refloated.

It’s a fast but very expensive way to transport an oil rig compared to pulling it with a tugboat, according to Ward.

“Ships of that size and capability — there aren’t many of them,” Ward said.

He said a loaded semi-submersible can travel three times faster than a tugboat towing a heavy rig. Shell officials told the Anchorage Daily News that the Noble Discoverer would leave Seward, Alaska, in three to six weeks for a trip to South Korea that should take two to four weeks.

A semi-submersible carrying an oil rig, with its tall drilling tower, would be top-heavy and vulnerable to heavy seas. The circular, 266-foot-wide Kulluk rig would also hang far over the sides of its piggybacking ship. But the method Shell calls “dry towing” is safer than regular towing if the seaworthiness of the vessel getting a piggyback ride is in question.

The Kulluk ran aground in a New Year’s Eve storm in the Gulf of Alaska while it was being towed to Seattle.

In the month and a half since the grounding, Shell and the US Coast Guard have said very little about how badly the Kulluk was damaged. Monday’s announcement that the two oil rigs need to go to drydocks in Asia suggests serious damage to both rigs.

A Big Dent, A New Test

The news puts a big dent in Shell’s chances of drilling for oil in the Arctic this year. Shell only has permission to drill in the brief Arctic summer.

"We have not made any final decision on 2013 drilling in Alaska," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email. "Mapping the next steps for the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer is a multifaceted operation."

Environmental groups repeated their calls for the Obama administration to stop Arctic Ocean drilling. Two federal investigations are currently examining Shell's mishaps in its Arctic drilling efforts.

"Even if the company can somehow get its damaged vessels repaired, our government has no business allowing Shell back in the Arctic," attorney Michael Levine of the environmental group Oceana, Inc. in Juneau, Alaska, said in an email. "Let's not forget, the damage sustained by the Kulluk was caused by poor decisions and planning. We should be in no rush to see more of that in [the] Arctic."

It’s been a year of rough sailing for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet. Last February, Vigor Shipyards worker William Shelby fell to his death while working on the tall mast of the Kulluk in Seattle.

Last summer, Shell lost control of the Noble Discoverer in Unalaska, Alaska. It nearly ran aground.

Shell had planned to begin drilling off Alaska’s north coast last summer. But it was only able to drill two partial wells after a series of accidents and construction delays with its Arctic oil-spill equipment here in Puget Sound.

An underwater test of the Arctic Challenger barge near Anacortes, Wash., in September, was a spectacular failure, leaving Shell’s oil-spill containment dome “crushed like a beer can,” according to an Interior Department official who witnessed the test.

Late Monday night, the Arctic Challenger headed out of the Port of Bellingham for a third round of testing and possible federal approval.

Interior Department officials say the test has not been scheduled. The Coast Guard says Shell has the deep-water testing site off of Samish Island reserved for the next week and a half.

Help John Ryan follow up on this story.

Year started with KUOW: 2009