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Shell‘s Arctic Oil Response Plan

Intensive efforts balance risk


The Noble Discoverer has been upgraded and refurbished twice in the last ten years to work in the US Arctic.

© Shell

As Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling rigs make their way up Alaska’s coast to oil leases in the Chukchi Sea, the oil giant and its drilling procedures in the Arctic are being scrutinized closely.

The exploration flotilla includes twenty-nine marine assets and two drilling units, the semi-submersible Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer. In June, the Polar Pioneer was headed for the staging area at Dutch Harbor, while the Discoverer was still in Washington. Shell estimates the ships would arrive in the Arctic in mid-July, when the drill sites about seventy miles northwest of Wainwright were expected to be clear of pack ice.

The Polar Pioneer began drilling at the Burger J prospect on July 30, 2015 at 1700 AKDT.


The oil spill response vessel Nanuq is staged in the Chukchi Sea to immediately respond in the unlikely event of a spill. The Nanuq provides containment, recovery and storage for the initial operational period. (Dutch Harbor, July 2014)

© Shell


Intensive Effort

The oil giant has been operating in Arctic waters for decades and says it takes great care in operating safely. “The goal of zero spills is one of our highest priorities—along with the safety of personnel and an intensive effort to recognize the concerns of the people who live near and depend upon the resources of the Chukchi Sea,” the company states.

According to the US Geological Survey, Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf may hold more than 26 billion barrels of oil. Starting in July, Shell planned to drill as many as six wells over the next two summers in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska to confirm if the oil is economically recoverable. It spent $2.1 billion for the leases in 2008.

It’s an operation that involves not only Shell, which has eighty-seven thousand employees in seventy countries, but dozens of state and federal agencies, the Coast Guard, a cooperative agreement with other North Slope oil producers and operators, as well as regional and village Alaska Native corporations.

“We have been diligent to engage early and often with communities across Alaska to understand their concerns, to address their concerns and to make sure we communicate any potential impacts in their community as a result of our operations. We really want to mitigate and solve an issue before it surfaces,” the company states. “Partnering with communities is the most valuable role Shell can take.”

Shell has been involved in the Alaska petroleum industry since 1918. It has held more than six hundred meetings with Alaska stakeholders and communities since 2006.


The Fennica (below right and inset) is the primary ice management vessel in support of the Noble Discoverer drilling rig in the Chukchi Sea. The Fennica carries a capping stack aboard the vessel. The capping stack is part of Shell’s third-tier oil spill response plan. (Dutch Harbor, July 2014)

The Tor Viking II (below left) was built in 2000 and served as the primary anchor-handling vessel in support of the Noble Discoverer. Its secondary purpose is as an ice management vessel. (Dutch Harbor, July 2014)

Photos © Shell


Balancing the Risk

In July 2014, ASRC (Arctic Slope Regional Corporation) and six North Slope village corporations created a company, Arctic Iñupiat Offshore(AIO), that allows them to acquire an interest in Shell’s Chukchi Sea operations. The six communities represented are Atqasuk, Kaktovik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Wainwright, Point Hope and Barrow. Rex Rock Sr., president and CEO of ASRC, will serve as president of Arctic Iñupiat Offshore.

“Our region has always been a leader in strategic partnerships that provide meaningful benefits to our shareholders, to our people,” Rock states in a news release published in August 2014. “I am humbled to acknowledge that this arrangement balances the risk of OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] development borne by our coastal communities, with the benefits intended to support our communities and our people.”

Shell has community liaison officers in Alaska towns from Dutch Harbor to Barrow, and subsistence advisers in communities across the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs to try and mitigate any potential impacts to communities. Shell also publishes a monthly newsletter, the Siḷalliq, meaning “neighbor,” to discuss its operations in the Arctic. It has contracts with ASRC Energy Services and Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation Arctic Response Services, which own and operate oil spill response equipment.

Protecting the environment is important for the residents of the North Slope, many of whom hunt for whale, caribou, and walrus to fill their freezers. Shell had to create a detailed Oil Spill Response Plan before being issued permits to operate in the Arctic.


The Harvey Explorer shuttles supplies to the drill rigs Noble Discoverer or Polar Pioneer. During the resupply trips, it’s also used to remove the mud/cuttings and other waste streams from certain locations. (Dutch Harbor, July 2014)

© Shell


The Plan

Shell’s Oil Spill Response Plan describes the equipment and personnel it will have onsite for immediate response to a spill, as well as logistical support services and supplies available for a longer-term response. The company notes that any drilling will be done during the generally ice-free months of July through October.

The plan was approved by the US Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversaw oil spill responder training and a drill that tested the deployment of the oil spill response equipment in Valdez this spring. It also weathered an unprecedented court challenge to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s approval process this spring.

The plan runs several hundred pages, with lists of phone numbers, ship and equipment schematics, coastline maps, and scenarios under which different potential spill incidents are played out.

In April, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement oversaw a demonstration of Shell’s undersea containment dome. Afterward, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno noted, “Arctic operations require extra effort to prevent safety or environmental incidents. We are leaving no stone unturned to ensure operators have addressed all relevant risks.”


The Harvey Spirit is used to shuttle supplies to the drill rigs. (Dutch Harbor, July 2014)

© Shell


Program Support

Shell’s Oil Spill Response Plan is supported by three United States Coast Guard recognized Oil Spill Removal Organizations: AES Response Operations, UIC Arctic Response Services, and Alaska Clean Seas.

AES Response Operations is a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and provides the Shell OSR program locally trained and experienced response personnel and equipment to support offshore and nearshore response operations. AES Response Operations provides over 150 dedicated response personnel and state of the art response equipment that is pre-staged on various vessels in Shell’s fleet. AES Response Operations response personnel are on standby as the initial responders in the unlikely event of an incident.

UIC Arctic Response Services provides technical expertise and specialized response training for organizations supporting the Shell OSR program. UIC Arctic Response Services also provides response equipment and management of Shell-owned response equipment used in the onshore and offshore operating area. Additionally, UIC Arctic Response Services maintains the largest supply of oil spill dispersant in the state of Alaska and has a C-130 on retainer in support of the dispersant program.

Alaska Clean Seas or ACS is a nonprofit, incorporated oil spill response cooperative made up of oil and pipeline companies on Alaska’s North Slope, including Shell. The cooperative has various membership levels.

Alaska Clean Seas was created in 1979, called ABSORB, as an equipment cooperative for members to use in case of an oil spill. In 1990, it was restructured into a full-response organization, which responds like a fire brigade to an emergency with trained personnel and equipment.

Its purpose is to provide personnel, material, equipment, and training to its members so they can prepare, respond to, and clean up after an oil spill on the North Slope, according to the ACS website. In certain cases, ACS can also respond to non-member spills. It operates on the North Slope, portions of the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf and shorelines, and the first 167 miles of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline corridor.

ACS has more than $75 million in equipment, including 96 vessels, 61 miles of oil containment boom, 160 oil skimmers, helitorch aerial ignition systems, oil storage mini-barges various storage tanks and bladders. It has about ninety full-time staff, half of whom are located on site performing response and environmental duties for their respective member companies. Other trained personnel are available under mutual aid agreements, as well as five hundred from private contractors and North Slope Village Response Teams.

It is based in Deadhorse, where new facilities were completed this spring, as well as offices in Anchorage.

Since its inception, ACS has conducted extensive research and development on spill response in Arctic conditions. It focuses on spill recovery in broken ice, as well as recovering and tracking oil on and under the ice.

ACS also maintains permits with a variety of state and federal agencies in regard to oil spill training and emergency response impacts on wildlife.


Shell crew members conducting a containment boom training exercise in Dutch Harbor, July 2014.

© Shell


The Scenario

Once a drillship reaches the oil leases, it will deploy to the drill site, while other ships are staged nearby. For instance, the Discoverer is a 514-foot drillship that can house up to 124 people. It is designed for water 125 to 1,000 feet deep and has been winterized for Arctic offshore conditions.

The drilling equipment is in the center of the vessel on a turret. The Discoverer has an eight-point mooring system attached to the turret. The ship also has thrusters, which are used to rotate around the turret to keep the bow of the ship facing weather or ice floes.

Several vessels will be stationed nearby for immediate deployment in case of a spill:


  • An oil spill response vessel, which carries several smaller workboats, oil skimming equipment, oil containment boom, storage for recovered oil, and a dispersant application system, which must be stationed near the drillship. A second recovery vessel, a large tank barge called the Klamath, is available with two high-capacity skimmers and is staged no more than three hours or 30 miles away from the drill site.
  • Another barge with additional oil skimming equipment and storage for recovered oil must be nearby to support nearshore operations.
  • An Arctic oil storage tanker able to store at least 513,000 barrels of recovered oil must be no farther than 240 nautical miles from the drill site.
  • Two oil spill skimmers with dedicated recovered oil storage capacity are stationed within forty-two hours of the drillship to support the potential for extended operations.
  • Near-shore response and shoreline protection equipment, which includes multiple landing craft, workboats, containment boom and skimmers are staged in Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.


Shell’s Oil Spill Response Plan also identifies other contractors and service providers available in case of a spill, as well as its access to hundreds more trained workers through Shell’s contracted Oil Spill Removal Organizations.

The nearest village to the leases is Wainwright. Its airport can handle C-130s, a fixed-wing aircraft that can be used to transport response supplies and equipment. It is about a one-hour flight from Deadhorse and three hours from Anchorage.

Wainwright is the forward staging site for support of near-shore and onshore recovery operations, according to Shell’s spill response plan. Olgoonik Corporation is the logistics contractor that provides support services in Wainwright.

In the very unlikely event of a spill, Shell has assembled an on-site suite of Arctic-tested booms, skimmers, aircraft, tankers and specialized vessels that could begin recovering discharge within one hour. Additionally, near-shore and on-shore oil spill response fleets will be pre-staged in the event discharge escapes the first line of defense.

“Our whole ethos of drilling in Arctic conditions is based on prevention and stopping any incident before it can lead to a pollution event,” says Shell spokeswsoman Megan Baldino. “Our oil spill response plan is approved and is one of the most robust, most scrutinized plans and collection of equipment and capabilities of any offshore exploration program in the world. We’ve designed numerous redundancies into a plan that includes twice the pipe shearing power in the blowout preventer, a capping stack as an additional method to end a release, our Arctic containment system, and marine vessels to provide support and additional response if needed.

“No company in the world has assembled the Arctic oil spill response and containment assets that Shell has.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in the August 2015 print
and digital editions of
Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
This story has been updated.


Published on May 3, 2015

Shell’s plans include drilling exploratory wells in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Shell’s Alaska program has gone to great lengths to make sure a worst-case scenario, such as an oil spill, never takes place. But in the unlikely event that one did, Shell’s onsite oil spill response assets would be deployed within one hour. Shell Alaska maintains a highly capable emergency response planning and management program.

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