Shell’s plans for arctic offshore drilling are coming together on a massive scale.
Down here, the 77 degree water is about as warm as the ocean breeze that sweeps onshore.
We're far closer to the equator than the Arctic Circle, and had to ask -- what in the world do these people know about building an icebreaker?
“We don't pretend to know everything,” said Gary Chouest, President and CEO of Edison Chouest Offshore, owners of North American Shipbuilding, where the world's most specialized support vessels for the offshore oil industry are designed and manufactured. “We like the Japanese, we like to copy where we need to.”
Their big project these days is the Aiviq, a soon-to-be icebreaker named after the Inupiat word for walrus. Shell Oil Company commissioned the vessel for next summer's exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s north coast.
The Aiviq is sitting in multiple pieces, which shipbuilders will eventually stack on top of one another to create the vessel’s final structure.
Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby visited the yard on a recent September morning.
“I never get tired of it. In 30 years of being in the business, making something happen is really an exciting part of it,” he said, almost shouting over the sounds of a busy shipyard.
The Aiviq's specialty is moving anchors, which keep the drilling vessels in place. The ship is also a last defense against any stray sea ice that might disrupt drilling. It has a special design that allows it to ride up on top of the frozen surface and use its sheer weight to crush through ice up to a meter and a half thick.
Shell likes to point out that the propellers were engineered to be as quiet as possible -- so as not to disrupt arctic wildlife, like bowhead whales, an ongoing concern among many subsistence hunters.
The Aiviq, though, is just one out of a fleet of vessels Shell plans to use.
At the nearby Edison Chouest Offshore training center, crew members like Bill Soplu have been busy running through drills on simulators, which can recreate almost any conditions they'll encounter in Alaska.
“This system is very realistic. I've been to Valdez harbor before and it's pretty similar,” he said, demonstrating the system.
BP and its response team used these very machines to practice spill cleanup techniques during last summer's deepwater horizon disaster.
All this represents a significant investment in Alaska, in some ways, a gamble, that the roughly $200 million Shell's spending on the Aiviq and the training for crews will actually pay off, perhaps in the billions, despite regulatory delays and lawsuits which have derailed Shell's drilling plans in recent years.
“You know you hear a lot of people saying you can't work in ice conditions, you don't have the capacity. Well, I mean, the capacity is right behind us,” Slaiby said, gesturing at the metal hull.
Shell and the shipbuilders insist, the Aiviq will be ready by next spring, so that it can hit the open ocean and start heading Alaska’s way.