Coast Guard evacuates 18 from drilling rig

The Coast Guard has evacuated 18 employees from a stranded Shell drilling rig and is assisting the tugboat that was heaving it across turbulent western Alaska waters.

The Coast Guard also used two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters to ferry equipment parts to the tugboat Aiviq on Saturday morning, as repairs focused on its damaged engines.

“Mechanics are busy replacing fuel injectors and purging intake systems of potentially contaminated fuel,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. As of Saturday morning, two engines had been brought back online, and by late Saturday, all four of Aiviq’s engines were functional.

The Aiviq has been towing the Kulluk conical drilling rig south, about two months after it stopped boring the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. But on Thursday, amid 20-foot seas and winds of up to 40 miles per hour, the Aiviq lost its tow line to the Kulluk. Once it was reconnected, the tugboat experienced multiple engine failures, perhaps due to water in the ship’s fuel. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said crew were able to use power generators on the Aiviq to keep it and the tethered Kulluk from drifting significantly.

The Coast Guard has been coordinating a response with Shell Oil Co., and Edison Chouest, which owns the Aiviq.

The Coast Guard initially deployed C-130 aircraft to monitor the scene and sent its cutter Alex Haley to help out, although it has left the scene after one of its propellers was damaged in a bid to string a tow line to the Kulluk to keep it from drifting. The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory is slated to arrive in the area Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, a Shell-contracted support ship, MV Guardsman, arrived around 2 p.m. Friday and Shell’s contracted Nanuq response vessel showed up around 6:30 a.m. Saturday.

“Our main priority remains the safety of all crews involved in this situation,” said Capt. Paul Mehler III, the commander of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. “To help ensure safety of all involved, we have directed multiple Coast Guard assets to the area, including the coast Guard Cutter Hickory, our Kodiak-based HC-130s and Jayhawk helicopter aircrews.”

By late Friday, workers were able to connect a tow line from the Guardsman to the Aiviq, although it has since been removed. By mid-afternoon Saturday, responders were attempting to connect another anchor line to the Kulluk using the Nanuq.

Shell officials said late Friday that they were assessing options for towing the vessels to safe harbor and had secured additional assets in case more help is needed.

Although 18 Kulluk crew members were rescued by helicopter, another dozen workers are still on the Aiviq.

An initial attempt to evacuate workers from the Kulluk — which Shell described as a precaution — failed on Friday, amid the bad weather. While the wind direction was working in Shell’s favor on Saturday, the high sea has made the response more difficult, and the National Weather Service predicts worsening conditions over coming hours and days.

Mike LeVine, senior counsel with Oceana, noted that “we are fortunate that this latest incident happened close to the Coast Guard station in Kodiak.”

“Response equipment was nearby, and parts to fix the Aiviq’s broken engines could be dropped off by helicopter.” LeVine said. “If this had happened in the Arctic Ocean, Shell could have been on its own, 1,000 miles from the help it needed. The rough conditions that prevented a rescue today could be compounded by darkness and ice in the Arctic.”

Environmentalists opposed to exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic have stressed the lack of infrastructure, including Coast Guard response vessels.

A 29-year-old conical drilling unit, the Kulluk spent more than a dozen years hibernating in Canada before Shell snapped it up for its new Arctic venture..

This is just the latest misfortune to befall Shell, roughly two months after it ended its Arctic drilling season.

The Noble Discoverer, which, unlike the Kulluk, moves under its own engines, had propulsion problems pulling into Seward in mid November, prompting a Coast Guard inspection that revealed additional safety system and pollution-control system deficiencies.

A fire also broke out in the rig stack on the Discoverer while it was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska in mid November.