ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gale force winds have now died down in Unalaska, and a preliminary examination of the hull of the drilling vessel "Noble Discoverer" has turned up no sign of damage.
Just yesterday (Saturday), the 14-thousand ton RIG drifted dangerously close to shore in Dutch Harbor -- when its anchor dragged. Pete Slaiby, the Vice President of Shell Oil in Alaska says the SHIP drifted approximately 100 yards. Sustained winds in Dutch Harbor were clocked at 35 miles an hour at the time the Dicoverer started its uncontrolled drift, at around 5:20 P.M.
Some witnesses said they believed that the vessel touched bottom a short distance offshore-- what the Coast Guard refers to as a soft-grounding.
But a Remotely-Operated-Vehicle, or R.O.V., was put into the water Saturday night, and it could find no evidence that the hull had scraped bottom.
Nevertheless, pictures taken by some Dutch Harbor residents do seem to show the vessel almost touching shore, but if a telephoto lens was used in the shots, it could compress distance. The Noble Discoverer has a draft of just 26 feet, and so it's possible for it to enter very shallow water and still not touch bottom.
The fact is, we won't have definitive word on whether there was, indeed, a "soft grounding" until "Hard-Hat" Divers can enter the water Monday morning to inspect the hull of the vessel first hand.
Meanwhile, environmentalists say they're deeply concerned over the incident. Eric Myers, of the Audubon Society, says that if the Shell Vessel ever experiences an uncontrolled drift in the Arctic -- while connected to a pressurized, subsea oil pipeline -- there could be a major spill.
But Slaiby says the scenario Myers describes is very unlikely. When on-station -- in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas this summer -- Shell's two drill-rigs, the "Kulluck" and the "Noble Discoverer" will have 8-point anchors holding them in place. Those anchors will be moored thousands of feet from each vessel, and will surround them for 360 degrees. Such anchoring is very secure. It could not be used this weekend in Dutch Harbor because the confines of Unalaska Bay are so narrow. Eight-Point Anchoring It would interfere with other ship traffic.
Slaiby believes that with the more elaborate anchoring system, the rigs will not drift when they're out in the Arctic Ocean. He says that even if they do, and even if that triggers an accidental disconnect from sub-sea pipes at the worst possible moment -- when those pipes are pressurized with oil -- there still will not be a spill. That's because the rigs will be drilling low-pressure reservoirs, and the pipes will be filled with heavy drilling mud. The pressure from the mud will prevent oil from rising out of the pipes on its own.
As mentioned earlier, inside Dutch harbor, Shell uses only a single anchor to keep the drill-rigs in place. It also makes sure that a tugboat is positioned nearby. Those were the conditions last night when the Discoverer (or "Disco" as the oil workers call it) started to drag anchor in 35 mile-an-hour winds. Slaiby says it took 28 minutes to get the drifting rig back under control.
Tonight (Sunday) winds in Dutch Harbor have died down to just 7 miles an hour -- and the Noble Discoverer is back where it should be, anchored off of Hog Island.
The Coast Guard says it's possible that saturday's drifting incident was triggered due to soft sand in Unalaska Bay -- which makes it hard for an anchor to bite properly. An investigation into the incident is still not complete. No one was hurt and no pollution was released.
If everything had gone as originally scheduled then both rigs, The Noble Discoverer and the Kulluck, should have been drilling the Arctic by now. Unusually heavy ice in the Bering Sea has prevented them from leaving.
But if the dive team gives the "Disco" a clean bill of health Monday morning, the hope is that both vessels will depart in early August.
When they arrive on-station in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, they'll conduct an abbreviated schedule of exploratory drilling that could last until the end of October.
It's the first attempt in decades to use drills to try to find oil in the Arctic Ocean off the Alaska Coast.
Environmentalists warn that the plan is too dangerous. They point out that simulations, conducted a decade ago under Arctic conditions, show it's nearly impossible to contain or recover a big oil spill in the Arctic. Heavy sea ice simply pushes its way right underneath booms.
And Eric Myers of the Audubon Society says the the Final Environmental Impact statement on drilling in Alaska's Arctic Seas -- written in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Interior -- indicates that the probability of a spill in the Arctic is high.
According to Myers, the E.I.S states (for Lease Sale 193 in the Chukchi Sea) that there's a 40% risk of a "major" spill in the ocean during the drilling of the first billion barrels there.
Myers says that's unacceptably high in view of the fact that there really is no such thing as a "clean-up" of a major spill. Clean-ups -- like that of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, and B.P's Macondo Well in the Gulf -- typically recover only 5 to 15% of the oil spilled.
Slaiby says it's impossible to say what percentage of oil can be recovered in the event of a spill. He says his job is to keep oil in the pipe.
Meanwhile, no oil has yet been found in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. At least reserves there are not "Proven". But the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that recoverable oil in Alaska's Arctic waters could rival that of the North Slope.