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What Happens Next to Shell's Ship that Ran Ashore?

U.S. Coast Guard divers are now on the way to Dutch Harbor, Alaska to inspect the 571-foot drill rig Noble Discoverer, which is scheduled to drill three exploratory wells in the American Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea as early as August. The locals say it ran aground in the harbor in broad daylight on Saturday and took pictures to prove it. Shell Oil Co. says otherwise; it “lost its moorings and came close to the coast.” We’ll have to wait and see what the Coast Guard has to say about reasons for the mistake.

The company that can’t keep a ship in safely anchored in a harbor (in four-foot seas!) has had a tough couple of weeks. First the company told the federal government it based its nearshore and shoreline oil spill cleanup equipment on the “assumption” that the company will be able to recover 90 percent of any oil spill in the water, which helped get approval of the spill plans. Later Shell took it back and said it only expected to “encounter” 90 percent of the oil spilled, whatever that means. Then Shell asked the Coast Guard to let the company back out of its commitment to have its oil spill containment barge, the “Arctic Challenger,” meet the 100-year storm-worthy standard and instead drop to the less-stringent 10-year storm standard. And just last week, Shell said whoops, it can’t meet the air pollution standards imposed by it Clean Air Act permit and asked the federal government to lower them …

There are quite a few unanswered questions before the final drilling permits can be issued. The “Arctic Challenger” barge needs to be certified by the Coast Guard after sea testing next week. Will they grant Shell a favor and go with the lesser sea-worthy version? The EPA is deciding how to handle the Shell’s request to emit more particulate pollution and nitrogen oxide than the company’s air permit allows.

And now, the Coast Guard needs to inspect the Noble Discoverer and find out why it couldn’t stay safely anchored in Dutch Harbor this week.

Of course, the thickest sea ice found in the area this late in the summer for a decade has to melt before the ships can even access the remote Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Shell’s drilling fleets are still more than 1000 miles from their destination and the clock is ticking before dangerous sea ice begins to accumulate and the Arctic Ocean freezes over again in a few months.

Ultimately, the Department of Interior has yet to give its final go-ahead to drill. Yesterday, Secretary Salazar speaking in New York said “We have not yet given the final permits to Shell. We don’t know if it will occur, and if it does occur, it will be done under the most watched program in the history of the United States.”

A worthy sentiment but we haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. Instead, at the 11th hour, Shell is performing like the Keystone cops. And now, the world is watching.

The 571-foot drill rig Noble Discoverer, which is scheduled to drill three exploratory wells in the American Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea, drifted from its moorings in Dutch Harbor, AK. Locals who witnessed the incident say it ran aground in the harbor. (Photo courtesy of Kristjan Laxfoss)