BELLINGHAM - The Arctic Challenger oil well blowout response vessel has passed its final inspections and is expected to be ready for duty in 2013 in the oil field that Shell Oil Co. is developing in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Straits.
Superior Energy Services of Houston built the Arctic Challenger during the spring, summer and fall at the Port of Bellingham's shipping terminal on Cornwall Avenue, a project that involved mounting a complex oil well containment system on a barge. Shell had hoped the Arctic Challenger would be ready for service during the 2012 drilling season, but delays in construction and clearance by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping forced a delay.
In the past week, those hurdles were cleared. Scott Powell, Superior Energy's vice president of Marine Technical Services, said there was no way to rush the complex project and the detailed inspection process that followed its completion.
"It's been a challenge," Powell said. "It's the first time that this equipment has been put together and gotten wet. ... We've been held to the highest level of accountability that I've ever seen in my career, and we welcomed it."
Rick Hawkins, Superior's director of support services, said the same.
"We took a very conservative approach in making sure we got it right the first time," Hawkins said.
In September, the project suffered a final setback when its main feature, a blowout containment dome, was damaged during testing. In an email message, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith offered an explanation.
"Our internal investigation determined the Arctic Challenger's dome was damaged when it descended too quickly due to a faulty electrical connection that improperly opened a valve," Smith said. "While safety systems ensured it did not hit the bottom, buoyancy chambers were damaged from the sudden pressure change. We are now modifying those specific elements of the dome to ensure it's ready for next year's operations."
Smith also said Shell expects to move the Arctic Challenger from Bellingham to the Arctic next year.
"The American Bureau of Shipping classification and recent Coast Guard certification of the Arctic Challenger containment barge is welcome news and means Shell will have the necessary assets in place to drill and evaluate hydrocarbon zones in 2013," Smith said. "Until then, we will continue to make the most of the time that remains in the 2012 open water season by drilling top hole sections on our prospects in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas."
"Top hole sections" are the upper portion of a potential oil well that do not extend all the way down to the oil deposit.
Superior's Powell said the Arctic Challenger and an undetermined number of employees will spend this winter, and probably many more, at the Port of Bellingham berth, where Superior has a five-year lease.
Powell said Bellingham has proven to be a good place for the company to do business, with a solid local labor force with marine industrial experience.
Greenberry Industrial, a Vancouver, Wash., firm with operations in Ferndale, served as general contractor. A number of other local subcontractors also were involved.
During the peak of activity earlier this year, Powell said there were 950 workers on the site, making it one of the largest private employers in the county, at least for a while.
Powell, who has a Texas accent but attended Sehome High School, said he hopes his company can close deals to build more projects here.
"Bellingham is such a natural spot to support Alaska out of," Powell said. "We know you don't want a bunch of dirty industry, and we know why. We think we fit really well."
Reach JOHN STARK at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2274.