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Shell's Arctic "Beer Can" Passes Federal Test In Puget Sound

Shell Oil Co. had to postpone its Arctic drilling until 2014 after one of its oil rigs ran aground off the Alaska coast this winter, but Shell’s efforts to open a new frontier of oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean continue in Puget Sound.

The oil giant passed a key test with federal regulators in March in the waters off Anacortes, Wash., north of Seattle.

Neither Shell nor the federal government announced the results, but a Shell contractor successfully deployed Shell’s Arctic oil-spill containment system in Samish Bay in March.

Crews from Superior Energy Services of Houston slowly lowered a 20-foot dome over the side of Shell’s Arctic Challenger barge and down into the 150-foot-deep water.

They anchored the dome and used it to suck up sea water at a rate of about 2,000 gallons a minute.

The dome system is supposed to do the same to oil and gas gushing from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean if a blown-out well cannot be capped.

Earlier tests of the containment dome had gone badly. In September, the dome wound up “crushed like a beer can.” Superior rebuilt and reinforced the containment dome before testing it again this winter and spring.

In an email, Nicholas Pardi with the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (part of the US Department of the Interior), said the spill system handled more than twice the volume of oil that would be expected in a worst-case Arctic-well blowout.

Unprecedented Transparency?

Pardi did not respond to KUOW’s requests to interview either of the BSEE officials who were on board the Arctic Challenger. Nor did he provide the requested documentation of the test results.

Since his first day in office, President Barack Obama has proclaimed his administration’s commitment to “an unprecedented level of openness in government.” On January 21, 2009, President Obama issued a memo ordering federal agency heads to make information about their agencies’ operations and decisions more rapidly and readily available to the public.

“The way to make government accountable is to make it transparent,” Obama said in announcing the memo, “so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made and whether their interests are being well served.”

Four years later, journalists and open-government advocates complain that many federal agencies — from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration — never seemed to get the memo.

Access to government scientists and others with first-hand expertise is more difficult than ever, according to the journalism groups. It can be difficult or impossible to get many Obama administration officials, whether they’re experts, public relations staff or agency heads, to answer questions on the record.

Curtis Smith of Shell-Alaska declined to comment on the successful test of the Arctic Challenger’s oil-spill system, except to say that Shell has a 10-day information blackout before its quarterly earnings reports.

Help John Ryan follow up on this story.

Year started with KUOW: 2009