Markey seeks contingency plans Shell had before rig accident

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., today demanded the U.S. Coast Guard and Shell turn over information revealing how they prepared to rein in any adrift vessel, long before the oil company’s Kulluk drilling rig grounded on an Alaska island.

Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a candidate to replace John Kerry in the Senate, questioned whether the contingency planning was thorough and effective, especially given earlier problems with other vessels.

The drillship Noble Discoverer slipped its anchor and drifted near shore last July, before Shell sent the rig to bore the first half of an oil well in the Chukchi Sea.

“This is just the most recent incident in Shell’s attempt to drill offshore in the Arctic and it raises serious questions about the company’s ability to conduct these operations safely and in a way that protects the environment,” Markey said in a letter to Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp.

Markey also sent a letter to Marvin Odum, the president of Shell Oil Co., asking similar questions.

The Kulluk, a 29-year-old conical drilling unit, plowed into rocks on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island on Monday night amid stormy seas, and following a four-day battle to tow the vessel away from the area.

See more: Coast Guard releases video of grounded Arctic rig

A Shell-chartered anchor handling ship, the Aiviq, had been towing the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance when it lost that tow line and its four engines failed. The Coast Guard later evacuated 18 crew members from the Kulluk, two days before it ran aground.

Markey wants to know what kind of contingency planning Shell and the Coast Guard did before problems began last Thursday — and before the vessels began the long voyage across the Gulf of Alaska on Dec. 21.

He also is pressing the Coast Guard and Shell to explain why they didn’t offload more diesel fuel from the Kulluk, which does not have its own propulsion engines, before the trip. About 140,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel are estimated to be carried in three fuel tanks inside the double-hulled drilling unit, which officials said were used for ballast and to operate cranes, winches and other equipment on the vessel.

“Given that the Kulluk drill ship does not possess its own propulsion system, did the coast Guard consider requiring Shell to offload any fuel and petroleum from the Kulluk prior to it being towed?” Markey asked Papp.

Markey also tapped into mounting concerns that Shell made a bad call in sending the Aiviq and Kulluk into the Gulf of Alaska during the predictably stormy winter. “While this weather is severe, it is not unprecedented for Alaska in winter,” Markey noted.

According to an Oceana analysis of historical weather data, winds reach gale force in the Gulf of Alaska 13 percent of December and January.

“Did Shell consider waiting out the storm in a safe location, rather than attempting to continue to tow the Kulluk in such weather and sea conditions?” Markey asked.

Sean Churchfield, with Shell, told reporters Tuesday that the company had all necessary approvals before sending the Aiviq and Kulluk on their trek. That included the signoff by the Coast Guard and the ABS classification society on the maritime plan attesting to the vessels’ seaworthiness.

Shell also advised the Coast Guard of its own tow plan. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith noted that Coast Guard leaders have said they believed the Aiviq was capable of safely towing the Kulluk to Seattle.

“If we didn’t feel the same way, we wouldn’t have started on that journey,” said Smith, adding that when the vessels left Dutch Harbor, “the weather forecast indicated a favorable two-week window.”

Markey’s push as environmental groups and offshore drilling foes mount fresh campaigns to pressure the Obama administration to halt Shell’s plans to resume Arctic drilling this summer and wall off the area for future oil development.

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