Two massive Shell Oil Co. drilling rigs left a Seattle dock early Wednesday, starting the long trek to Alaska's Arctic waters and leaving behind years of legal battles and regulatory hurdles in a quest for riches under the sea.
With little drama, the Kulluk -- a 29-year-old conical Arctic drilling rig that spent a dozen years mothballed in Canada -- launched for Dutch Harbor, a supply stop on the way to the far north, just before 8 a.m. Seattle time. The Noble Discoverer -- a 1960s-era vessel used as a log carrier before being converted for drilling -- was right behind, said Curtis Smith, an Anchorage-based Shell spokesman in Seattle for the sendoff.
The U.S. Coast Guard was to escort the Shell ships as far as Port Angeles, Smith said.
The Kulluk will be towed by the Aiviq, a new icebreaking ship built in Louisiana for Shell's Arctic mission. In all, Shell plans to stage more than 20 ships, drilling rigs and support vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.
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Decades ago, Shell pioneered drilling in Cook Inlet and also drilled the majority of early exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and others in the Beaufort.
The oil industry, regulators and environmentalists all will be watching closely as Shell works to become the first to produce oil in the fragile ecosystem off Alaska's north shore. So will Alaska Natives who depend on the sea.
This summer, Shell plans to drill three exploratory wells on its Burger prospect in the Chukchi and two wells on Sivilluq prospect in the Beaufort.
Each drilling rig will be equipped with two blowout preventers, one for the well being drilled, and a backup in case a relief well must be drilled. Each blowout preventer is beefed up with two sets of blind-shear rams designed to slash through drill pipe to close off a malfunctioning well.
Shell owns the rights to more than 2 million acres off of Alaska. It established itself as the major explorer in 2008 when it paid $2.1 billion for its Chukchi leases. But its plans to explore have been delayed for years by lawsuits and permit challenges as well as tougher oil spill prevention requirements put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
On Monday in Puget Sound, Shell tested its capping stack, a newly engineered unit designed to kill an out-of-control well or, if that doesn't succeed, funnel the oil into a containment system. Regulators from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which has signed off on Shell's overall oil spill response plan, said it successfully deployed in 200 feet of water. The capping stack will be housed on the icebreaker Fennica, which will be stationed roughly halfway between the drilling prospects.
Shell still must get well-specific permits from the bureau before drilling can begin. The test of the capping stack was one step toward those well approvals. The containment system also must be tested before the drilling permits are issued. That should happen in July, the agency said.
Shell started its journey quietly and closely guarded its schedule for pushing off.
In February, a group of Greenpeace activists including the actress Lucy Lawless, famous for her role in "Xena: Warrior Princess," boarded the Discoverer in New Zealand to protest Arctic drilling. They were arrested, and Shell went to court to keep Greenpeace away from its drillers. U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason has ordered the environmental group to stay a kilometer from Shell's drilling rigs within 200 miles of shore.
Greenpeace says it never planned any shenanigans for the send-off, though it participated in a pre-launch party hoax earlier this month. A model of a drilling rig that was supposed to be tapped for alcohol instead spewed it everywhere. Shell had nothing to do with the party -- it was staged to put attention on the dangers of drilling, said Travis Nichols, a Greenpeace spokesman in Seattle.
Greenpeace opposes any drilling in the Arctic because of the risk of a spill or other damage, Nichols said. The organization already has a ship with scientists aboard under sail for the Chukchi. The Esperanza is carrying two small submarines, which Greenpeace plans to deploy to document pre-drilling conditions, he said.
"What we're working against is the industrialization of the Arctic," Nichols said. "We want to keep the Arctic in its pristine form. So definitely, no drilling in the Arctic."
Shell, finally under sail too, doesn't anticipate any last minute obstacles. It expects to begin drilling in late July.