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Shell awaits damage report on vessel carrying equipment required for Arctic offshore drilling

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Royal Dutch Shell PLC could find out Thursday whether a ship carrying blowout-response equipment required by federal regulators for Arctic offshore drilling can be repaired at a remote Alaska port or must head to dry dock elsewhere.

Inspectors that include divers continue to assess damage to the 380-foot Fennica, which was gashed Friday by an uncharted object as it left Dutch Harbor, a port in the Aleutian Islands, on its way to the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast.

The breach was about 39 inches long and a half-inch wide. Shell is focused on understanding the extent of the damage and the safest option for making the vessel seaworthy, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. He's not aware of any discussion of transferring the required equipment to another vessel.

"I'm sure it's come up. It's an option, but it's not our focus," he said.

The Fennica is an icebreaker. The presence of icebreakers also is part of Shell's exploration plan, even though the company will explore only during the short open water season.

"Our whole goal is to never interact with ice," Smith said.

The primary use of the Fennica for Shell in Alaska is to host a capping stack, the third line of defense to control a wellhead in the unlikely case of a blowout of an exploratory well, Smith said.

Federal requirements for drilling in Arctic waters, considered a frontier area because it lacks deep harbors, major airports and other infrastructure, are stringent. Shell's exploration plan calls for initial blowout or spill response to be conducted by a 28-vessel flotilla accompanying two drill vessels.

The first defense against an exploratory well blowout would be blind shear arms that could seal a well. The second is an infusion of drilling mud to plug it. The roughly 30-foot capping stack, the third line of defense, would provide a metal-to-metal connection to the wellhead. The capping stack could simply plug a well or connect hoses that could flow crude to vessels at the surface.

The capping stack would be maneuvered into place by equipment on the Fennica and underwater remotely operated vehicles, Smith said.

A containment dome, designed to capture crude oil and water and flow it to the surface, is a fourth safeguard.

Shell's exploration plan calls for drilling two exploratory wells this summer in the Chukchi Sea. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates Arctic offshore reserves at 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Shell has invested upward of $7 billion on leases and exploration expenses.

Arctic offshore drilling is bitterly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a spill in harsh conditions presented by the Arctic and that burning petroleum extracted from the region will exacerbate climate change that has already melted sea ice habitat needed by polar bears, walrus and ice seals.

Shell last drilled in the Arctic in 2012 but was not allowed to dig into petroleum-bearing rock because the containment dome was damaged and unavailable. The company would face a similar dilemma in 2015 if the capping stack cannot be moved north.

"At this point we don't feel like it will impact the drilling program, but ultimately that depends on the extent of the damage," Smith said.

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