Ship accident highlights Arctic drilling perils

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One of the drill ships that Royal Dutch Shell plans to use in a controversial Arctic drilling programme slipped off its moorings and drifted to the edge of shore in Alaska's Aleutian islands, a US Coast Guard representative said.

The 152-meter Noble Discoverer, contracted by Shell to drill exploration wells in the remote Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska, drifted in windy conditions on Saturday afternoon to within 91 meters of shore in an Aleutian bay, Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis said yesterday (15 July).

A tug towed the ship back to its mooring site, and the Discoverer was re-anchored, she said, adding that winds were gusting up to 56 kph at the time.

The ship's crew did not feel any shuddering or other indications of impact, Francis said. "It was extremely close to shore. But the initial indications were that the vessel wasn't actually aground," Francis said.

A remotely-operated vehicle inspected the hull on Sunday and found no damage, Francis said.

Shell has sent for divers to inspect the hull "to be sure there's no issue with the integrity" of the ship, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. The divers were expected to work over the next few days, he said.

Environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups have been adamantly opposed Shell's Arctic drilling plans, citing risks of oil spills and other accidents in the harsh Arctic environment.

Lois Epstein, Arctic programme director for the Wilderness Society, said the Discoverer mishap in relatively sheltered Dutch Harbor bodes ill for operations in the Arctic Ocean.

The Discoverer was 1,600 km south of its Chukchi Sea destination.

"The conditions in the Arctic are far more harsh, far more extreme," Epstein said. "When you're out in the Arctic, the consequences are enormous when things go wrong."

The Discoverer is among a fleet of ships Shell is amassing to travel to Arctic waters in the next weeks. The company plans to drill up to three exploration wells in the Chukchi and up to two in the Beaufort, off Alaska's northern coast.

The Discoverer's drifting incident is the latest in a series of recent problems encountered by Shell as it prepares to drill exploration wells in Arctic waters this summer.

Plans to start drilling this month have been delayed until August by unexpected thick pack ice, Shell said.

The resource-rich Arctic is becoming increasingly contentious as climate change makes the region more navigable. 

In the aftermath of the BP oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, the European Commission convened safety talks on deep-sea oil drilling with several oil companies – including Shell and BP.

A series of meetings were held over the summer of 2010 to discuss potential loopholes in EU legislation that might need to be addressed in order to prevent similar catastrophes from occurring in Europe.

In Europe, over 90% of oil and over 60% of gas production comes from offshore operations, mostly in the North Sea and Norwegian Sea.

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