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Small fire breaks out on Shell drill ship

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A small fire, caused by an explosion, broke out Friday on a drill ship used by Royal Dutch Shell to explore for oil in Alaska's remote Chukchi Sea, company and harbor representatives said.

The fire caused no injuries and will not affect Shell's operations schedule, said Curtis Smith, spokesman for the company in Alaska.

The Noble Discoverer, used by Shell to drill the top portion of an exploratory well, was not in operation and was in the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor when the fire occurred, officials said.

The ship completed seasonal drilling operations in the Chukchi on October 31. It was at the harbor on its way to a site where it will spend the winter, the company spokesman said.

Upon engine start-up in the port, the ship "experienced a loud engine backfire followed by a small residual fire that was quickly extinguished by the crew," Smith said.

No assistance from local firefighters in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor was needed, Smith said.

Unalaska Fire Chief Abner Hoage said his department received a report Friday morning that black smoke was coming from the drill ship. He arrived within minutes of the call, but the fire was extinguished by then, he said. The Discoverer was hooked up to two tugs and not yet docked at the time, he said.

Crew members reported that an engine had backfired, Hoage said. "They had been having some maintenance issues with that engine," he said.

The Discoverer, accompanied by a fleet of support vessels, was permitted to drill only the top portion of a well at Shell's Burger prospect. Federal regulators withheld permission for drilling into oil-bearing depths because Shell's required oil-spill barge failed to win U.S. Coast Guard certification for seaworthiness in time for the open-water drill season.

Another drill ship, the Kulluk, was allowed to conduct similar "top-hole" drilling at Shell's Sivulluq prospect in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northern coast. That drilling operation ceased on October 31, as well.

Both ships are expected back at the prospects next year, once open-water conditions return.

(Editing by Gary Hill)

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