Activists want Obama to halt Arctic oil drilling

WASHINGTON – Pressure mounted on the Obama administration to halt Arctic oil exploration Thursday, as inspections revealed water and electrical damage on Shell’s grounded Kulluk drilling rig.

Environmentalists demanded a moratorium on all Arctic drilling, saying that the rig accident highlights the difficulty of even routine operations in remote, icy waters. The Kulluk was being towed across the stormy Gulf of Alaska – not hunting for oil – when it plowed into rocks on the coast of Sitkalidak Island, near Kodiak City, Alaska.

‘A terrifying gamble’

“The risks of Arctic drilling extend all up and down the fragile Pacific coastline, from Seattle to the top of the world,” said Chuck Clusen, director of National Parks and Alaska Projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “No matter how much (money) Shell has poured into Arctic drilling it cannot make the effort anything but a terrifying gamble.”

Salvage specialists were still assessing the condition of the 29-year-old conical drilling rig on Thursday and trying to figure out a plan for rescuing the Kulluk from its rocky perch.

After being lowered to the rig this week, salvage crews documented wave damage to the top sides of the Kulluk and found that “a number of water-tight doors have been breached, causing water damage inside,” said Sean Churchfield, Shell Alaska’s operations manager.

Salvagers also heard a “breathing noise” from one of the vents inside the rig, which could be evidence of a breach, Churchfield said.

Emergency generators also were inoperable, which could complicate efforts to extract the rig from an area that is critical habitat for endangered Stellar sea lions, threatened sea otters and other wildlife.

Shell used the Kulluk to bore the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea last October, before sending it on its ill-fated voyage to Seattle.

Problems befell the Kulluk last week, when the tow line and engines failed on the boat tugging it across stormy seas. Four attempts to reattach tow lines and pull the Kulluk to safe harbor failed, culminating in its grounding Monday night.

The episode is one of several mishaps in Shell’s roughly $5 billion quest for Arctic oil, including a fire on the drillship Noble Discoverer, propulsion problems on that vessel and damage to Shell’s first-of-its-kind oil spill containment system during a deployment drill.

But Shell officials stress that none of the recent setbacks involving the Kulluk and Discoverer involved drilling operations.

“It is possible to drill safely there, as our 2012 record shows,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh.

“The current situation with the Kulluk is a marine transit issue and one we take very seriously,” op de Weegh added.

The NRDC and Wilderness Society want the Obama administration to block Shell’s plans to resume Arctic drilling this summer as well as future bids by ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Repsol and other companies that hold leases in the region.

Separately, in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Oceana pleaded for an Arctic drilling timeout “until and unless companies show that they can operate safely.”

5 permits OK’d in 2012

While the Coast Guard has oversight of vessels crossing U.S. waters, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is responsible for vetting permits to drill in Arctic waters. It approved five such permits last year, though it precluded Shell from burrowing into underground zones that could contain oil and gas until its emergency response system had cleared inspections and was nearby.

“The administration understands that the Arctic environment presents unique challenges, and that’s why (Salazar) has repeatedly made clear that any approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards,” said Blake Androff, a spokesman for the Interior Department.