Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig runs aground near Alaskan island

Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig ran aground Monday night near Alaska’s Kodiak Island after a five-day fight to tow the vessel through a fierce storm and 70-mph winds.

No one was on board the 29-year-old conical drilling unit when it hit rocks on the southeast side of the uninhabited Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and a powerful tugboat pulling the rig disconnected under Coast Guard orders around 45 minutes before the accident.

Although officials said there were no reports of any spill and a Coast Guard overflight revealed no sheen, about 139,000 gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid are on board the Kulluk.

Overflights are scheduled for Tuesday to assess the situation, and officials plan to send salvagers to the Arctic drilling unit to investigate its integrity.

“The extreme weather conditions and high seas continue to be a challenge. We have more than 250 people actively involved in the response efforts,” said Susan Childs, the incident commander with Shell, overnight. “Our priority right now is maintaining the safety of our response personnel and evaluating next steps.”

The fierce storm that has battered the rig and response crews with 35-foot-seas was expected to lighten slightly on Tuesday, with predictions of winds of up to 40 miles per hour. But the conditions are still treacherous.

The episode provides fresh fodder to offshore drilling foes who insist that Arctic oil exploration is too risky, raises questions about the oversight of coastal voyages and casts doubt on whether Shell will be able to resume its hunt for oil underneath the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this year.

Two Shell-contracted boats, including the tugboat Alert and the anchor handler Aiviq had been pulling the Kulluk to Port Hobron on the southeast side of Kodiak Island to weather the fierce storm in the Gulf of Alaska. The movement was timed to take advantage of a break in the turbulent weather that has battered the Kulluk and response boats since Thursday, when the Aiviq first lost its tow line to the rig and its four engines failed.

Since then, no fewer than four attempts to keep tow lines tethered to the Kulluk — both to keep it from drifting and to move it to safe harbor — have broken.

The Kulluk ultimately grounded around 8:48 p.m. Alaska Standard Time Monday night, about four and a half hours after the Aiviq separated from the vessel. At 8:10 p.m., the unified command — a formal structure involving Shell, the Coast Guard and state, local and other partners — ordered the Alert to release its tow line, out of concern for the nine crew members aboard that vessel.

Once the Aiviq’s tow line separated, officials said, grounding was a certainty; at that point, officials said the Alert crew worked to steer the rig to a location where environmental damage would be minimal.

The Kulluk is now located on the northern shore of Ocean Bay in water depths of about 32 to 48 feet. The island itself is uninhabited, and the nearest town is Old Harbor, located on the opposite side of Kodiak Island from where the Kulluk is grounded.

In a hastily called news conference overnight, Shell and Coast Guard officials stressed that the double-hulled Kulluk is not on land, even as bad weather prevented them from immediately moving more response vessels to the site.

“At this time, the weather condition does not allow us to move response equipment,” Childs said.

Lois Epstein, a professional engineer and the director of The Wilderness Society’s Arctic Program, said the episode shows that Shell’s fleet was unable to overcome the fierce weather so common in Alaskan and Arctic waters.

“In a demonstration of the power of Alaska’s fierce weather and seas, tugboats were unable to prevent Shell’s massive, $290 million Beaufort Sea drilling rig from grounding near Kodiak Island,” Epstein said. While it’s fortunate “there was no loss of life,” the incident proves that “Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska’s weather and sea conditions, either during drilling operations or during transit.”

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has been critical of Shell’s Arctic drilling program, said the accident revealed that “drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”

Before problems began on Thursday, Shell had been towing the Kulluk south to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance, roughly two months after using the drilling rig to bore the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.

A conical drilling unit without its own propulsion engines, the Kulluk spent more than a dozen years hibernating in Canada before Shell snapped it up for its new Arctic venture and spent roughly $300 million upgrading the rig. The vessel, which looks like a giant upside down umbrella, is designed to be lifted by floating ice, which can then break under the force of its pointed hull.

It is unclear whether the vessel can be salvaged or how it will weather the Gulf of Alaska storm while grounded. Officials said they would not know the extent of any environmental damage until surveillance flights on Tuesday.

Even if Shell can rescue the grounded rig, it may be unlikely to repair it in time for any planned drilling this summer, assuming it can even get federal permits to resume the work. The company drilled the first half of two wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last year, with the intention of returning to finish them and others once ice clears this summer.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which approves those permits, stressed in a statement that all equipment Shell plans to use indrilling operations “must first satisfy rigorous inspection and testing standards.”

“Any approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards,” the agency said.

While the safety bureau oversees offshore drilling, it is the Coast Guard’s responsibility to certify and inspect drilling units and other vessels. The Coast Guard also regulates the design, manning and navigation of those rigs while they are in transit. Shell was not required to get pre-approval to send the Aiviq and Kulluk south from Dutch Harbor.

Mike LeVine, the Pacific senior counsel with the conservation group Oceana, said the Kulluk’s grounding should be a “wakeup call” for government agencies to reconsider allowing industrial drilling operations in the Arctic ocean.

“Shell stands to benefit from drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and we all bear the risks,” LeVine said. “We hope that this accident will not become a major disaster.”

Shell’s 2012-2013 Arctic drilling program _ the first offshore oil exploration in the region in more than a decade _ has suffered numerous mishaps: First, stubborn sea ice clung to Alaska’s shores, preventing Shell’s ships from cruising to their shallow-water drill sites. Then, the drillship Noble Discoverer dragged its anchors and briefly floated out of control near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Later, Shell confessed it couldn’t satisfy some terms of an air pollution permit governing the Discoverer. The company’s first-of-its-kind oil spill containment barge was damaged during certification tests following months of construction delays.

Shell and its contractors also have struggled to send its assets safely to Seattle for maintenance during the winter. For instance the drillship Noble Discoverer is now near Seward, after having propulsion problems and being ordered by the Coast Guard to repair safety system and pollution-control system deficiencies. Separately, a fire broke out in the rig stack on the Discoverer while it was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska in mid November.

Shell executives have repeatedly stressed that much of the Arctic venture is new; even the company’s spill containment equipment is a first-of-its-kind system. The company also has pointed to its exhaustive paper-based simulations of the Arctic exploration, meant to plan for every emergency scenario.

The most recent incident with the Kulluk has unfolded close to a Coast Guard station in Kodiak, facilitating a quick response. In the past five days, the Coast Guard has deployed helicopters, C-130 aircraft and at least two cutters to assist the Kulluk and Shell’s contracted ships. The Coast Guard also evacuated 18 crew members from the Kulluk.

Meanwhile, Shell has deployed its own armada of contracted response vessels.

Roughly 250 people have been huddled in an Anchorage office building planning the response, speaking with crews of the response vessels and poring over weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Much of Sunday and Monday, officials had been scrutinizing potential safe harbors for the Kulluk and the rescue ships traveling with it. At one point, the Shell-contracted ship MV Guardsman was sent north to do reconnaissance on potential sites, including small ports as well as sheltered bays.

The hope had been to make it to safe harbor before winds and waves picked up again.

State environmental officials are acutely aware of the wildlife and fisheries in the region. The south side of Kodiak Island includes critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, praised “the heroism displayed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Shell personnel and other responders.”

“The focus now needs to be on securing the Kulluk and protecting local residents and the environment from potential fuel spills,” Murkowski said.

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