Phenomenon of bigger and bigger supply ships continues with new Shell Oil vessel

04 01, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

As Shell Oil took delivery of a new 360-foot icebreaker at Port Fourchon late last month and prepared for it to head to the coast of Alaska, those who follow the offshore industry say the locally built vessel was another step in a trend of supply ships getting bigger, more powerful and increasingly complex as the search for oil and gas reaches farther into the depths of the ocean. Shell, which has received tentative approval to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer, commissioned Edison Chouest Offshore to build the $200 million project, an order that came in the midst of a slowdown in local shipbuilding. It's the fourth icebreaker Chouest has built in the past two decades, and the second major vessel it has constructed for Shell.

For his part, company president and CEO Gary Chouest described the ship, known as the MV Aiviq, as "the world's largest and most powerful anchor-handling icebreaker."

Chouest spent more than $2 million upgrading facilities for the project, which was built at his North American Shipbuilding facility in Larose and at LaShip in Houma.

Shell plans to use the vessel to tow and position anchors that stabilize drilling rigs, said Pete Slaiby, Shell's vice president in Alaska, and it will also be able to respond to oil spills.

This year, Shell plans to drill up to two wells in the Beaufort Sea and up to three wells in the Chukchi Sea, which will be used to assess potential oil and gas reserves.

"It's pretty important to have vessels with this capacity in the Arctic, and the need for an anchor handler to actually get our vessels into place and to tow our vessels into place, and then we need to work in ice," Slaiby said.

garychouest_1024.jpgMatthew Hinton,The Times-PicayuneEdison Chouest Offshore CEO Gary Chouest said his company upgraded some of its facilities in preparation for the project.

The ship, the largest so far by the shipbuilder, was designed to handle the conditions in the Arctic, but Chouest said he was "open to any further orders, and hopefully we'll have the opportunity to build more vessels like it."

Still, the booming ship falls in line with offshore supply vessels that have been growing in size and scale for years, observers say. While that class remains its bread and butter, Chouest started on the path toward larger vessels a decade ago, when the standard size of a supply vessel was about 180 feet. And as ships started venturing farther into the ocean, requiring more power for drilling deeper into the shelf, those dimensions have grown to 200-, 240-, and 260-feet.

"I think we've built about 50 280-foot-supply vessels over the past five or six years. Now, it's 300 feet," said Lonnie Thibodeaux, a spokesman for Edison Chouest Offshore.

"The deeper the water that you're operating in, it's kind of common sense," he said.

The company built its first 280-foot supply vessel, the C-Leader, in 2003. Within the past two years, the shipbuilder has started transitioning to 300- to 310-foot supply vessels and has built or is building just under a dozen of those, he said.

Chouest designs, builds, owns and operates its own vessels, which it then leases out to companies like Shell. The Aiviq, which means "walrus" in Inupiat, will have a Chouest-employed crew of 32 people on board, in addition to Shell employees.

Jim Adams, president of the Offshore Marine Services Association in New Orleans, said that over time, offshore supply vessels "have grown in size and complexity," which has been dictated by "adapting to what the market requires and responding to what the industry needs and what our customers need."

"The requirements for dynamic position has changed the industry, and as we've gone into deeper water in the Gulf and the special requirements in offshore Alaska, you're seeing the kind of innovation that the market requires," Adams said. "It's really indicative really of the most innovative sector of the U.S. maritime industry so far."

From his perch as captain of the Aiviq, Joe Borkowski said that beyond the quality of his crew, the size of the vessel compared with his past assignments impressed him the most during a recent tour of the ship.

"Everything about this boat is just bigger and better than whatever I'm used to before," Borkowski said.