In sea tests, key Shell device“crushed like a beer can”

During sea trials in Washington state, Shell's containment dome was crushed by water pressure at a depth of 150 feet.

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

To prove that it’s ready to drill for oil and respond to a spill in the extreme conditions of the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska, Shell conducted a test in September of a critical piece of underwater oil spill response equipment.

It failed in spectacular fashion.

After Shell took its containment dome – a device designed to capture oil spewing from an underwater well – and lowered it 150 feet into Washington’s Puget Sound, the dome collapsed “like a beer can,” according to internal emails from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.  The massive white dome then shot to the surface and “breached like a whale” before sinking.

Shell officials keep saying the company is capable of operating safely in the icy and stormy Arctic. They want us to trust them. Seriously? They took a key piece of equipment designed to operate underwater, tested it in conditions far less challenging than the Arctic, and it was crushed as it descended, leaving workers to watch helplessly as it shot upward like a cork and then sank.

Such a debacle hardly inspires confidence in Shell’s readiness.

Shell wouldn’t talk to Seattle radio station KUOW about how it would repair the dome, or when it would be ready for another test. But the debacle in Puget Sound, detailed in emails obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by KUOW, was just another in a series of errors and failures that kept Shell from drilling for oil in the Arctic last summer as the company had planned.

The company failed for months to obtain Coast Guard certification for the 36-year-old Arctic Challenger, a barge that was overhauled and updated to carry spill-response equipment including the failed containment dome. Shell also lost control of Noble Discoverer, its Chukchi Sea drillship that slipped anchor in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and drifted toward shore, nearly running aground. And there was the request for revised (and less rigid) air-quality permits because Shell’s fleet couldn’t meet federal standards. Finally, the day after it began preparatory drilling in the Chukchi, Shell had to stop and move its drillship away from the area as a massive ice sheet measuring 12 miles by 30 miles passed through.

When you look at the facts, Shell’s claim of being ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2012 collapsed just like its containment dome.