Drilling in the Arctic could open up job opportunities for mariners

Arctic Drilling Kulluk Jack Molan
Jack Molan
Kulluk, after arriving in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

A fleet of oil drilling and support vessels headed for the Arctic could be the first wave of a new frontier for marine jobs.

Two upgraded drilling rigs were the centerpiece of Shell Oil’s flotilla of 21 vessels that departed June 27 for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, hoping to drill five test wells in the brief season before the winter ice grows too thick.

Shell’s exploration fleet includes oil-spill response barges, ice breakers, offshore supply vessels and platform supply vessels, a large tanker and other support vessels, according to Grant Fosheim, spokesperson for Vigor Marine, the shipyard that prepped many of the vessels.

The growth of Arctic drilling could signal a rise in demand for mariners to operate the vessels required to support offshore drilling operations.

Courtesy Vigor Industrial

Kulluk, a semi-submersible drill rig, and Noble Discoverer, a drill ship, leaving Vigor Marine in Seattle in June following work to prepare them to operate in the Arctic’s pristine environment.

“I think there will be huge opportunities for seafarers out here,” said Carl Ellis, assistant dean of the Seattle Maritime Academy. “The industry in the Gulf is finally coming back, and we’re going to see the same thing in a microcosm in the Arctic.”

Kulluk, an ice-class semi-submersible drill rig measuring 266 feet by 230 feet, underwent nearly a year’s work at Vigor’s Seattle yard. Kulluk — with a 160-foot drilling rig — will operate with zero discharge, as everything down to the sink water will be captured and stored.

Noble Discoverer, a 512-by-86-foot ice-class drill ship, underwent winterization and environmental upgrades. Noble Discoverer features six 7-by-20-foot E-Pods, which perform like catalytic converters in automobiles, capturing harmful discharges such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Discoverer’s emissions will meet the highest air quality standards in the world, Fosheim noted.

Prepping the drilling fleet created about 900 jobs between Vigor’s Portland and Seattle shipyards.

After the drilling season Shell will moor its fleet at Adak Island, Alaska, the westernmost community in the United States and the site of a former Navy base with a deep-water harbor.

Shell was forced to postpone drilling until August by an unexpected thick ice pack. The delay shortens the operational window, which is open only until the end of October, according to the permits from the U.S. government.

The Obama administration approved Shell’s drilling proposal after the company developed an unprecedented set of safeguards, including strict well-drilling standards and the addition of a second rig nearby that could drill a relief well in case of a blowout.

Shell’s plan includes a vessel capable of installing a capping stack maneuvered into place on the ocean floor with remotely operated underwater vehicles. The capping stack, which resembles a giant spark plug, is designed to halt an undersea oil well blowout by providing a metal-to-metal seal on a malfunctioning blowout preventer.

The industry, government and environmentalists fear a spill could threaten whales, polar bears, seals and walrus as well as the Alaska Native communities that depend on the ocean for food.

One of the ships already had a scare sure to rattle environmentalists. While moored in Dutch Harbor July 15, Noble Discoverer’s anchor slipped in 30-knot winds and the 512-foot vessel ran aground. Shell said the ship came “very near” land, but local observers said the stern hit rocks before the vessel was towed off, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The future of Arctic drilling is uncertain, as the Department of the Interior is reviewing its final offshore oil and gas leasing program for 2012-2017. A new leasing plan will provide for 15 potential lease sales from 2012 to 2017, including 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the northern coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet Planning Area.

The administration’s plan, including new Gulf leases and Arctic drilling, will allow access to three-fourths of known U.S. oil and gas resources.

The Alaska offshore fields hold an estimated 26.6 billion barrels of oil and 132.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as compared with the Gulf of Mexico field, which holds an estimated 44.9 billion barrels of oil and 232.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In addition to Shell, other major oil companies such as Statoil, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp., Gazprom, Rosneft, Eni, BP and Total have announced plans for Arctic drilling.

Some of the other oil companies may be waiting to see how Shell’s exploration proceeds. If all goes well, “the Arctic could open right up,” Fosheim said.

Other nations with Arctic territory are opening up to oil exploration as well. In Norway, western Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, Statoil found a deposit some 310 miles offshore that may hold 250 million to 500 million barrels, potentially the country’s biggest find in a decade. Norway estimates the Barents Sea may have 5.9 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and gas.

Categories: Jobs, Publication > Professional Mariner