Response operation for beached rig closes up shop

The Coast Guard has officially closed down the broad operation overseeing the response to the Dec. 31 grounding of Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig, as the oil company prepares to send the vessel to an Asian port for repairs.

The so-called “Unified Command,” with representatives from the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Shell and other stakeholders has been in charge of decisions governing the Kulluk since it ran into trouble being towed amid stormy seas to Seattle in late December. Its doors closed Wednesday night.

Steve Russell, Alaska’s on-scene commander, said it was “appropriate to stand down the Unified Command” since “objectives established on day one have been achieved.”

In the early days, the Unified Command’s goal was just to bring the Kulluk under control, after the tugboat pulling the rig across the Gulf of Alaska lost its tow line and suffered multiple engine failures amid 20-foot seas and winds of up to 40 miles per hour. Two days later, the Coast Guard evacuated 18 crew members from the conical drilling unit and Shell tried to use multiple tugboats to pull it to safe harbor. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, the Kulluk grounded near Alaska’s Kodiak Island, after the Unified Command ordered the sole remaining tugboat tethered to the rig to release the tow line out of concern for the safety of its crew.

At one point, as many as 750 people were huddled together overseeing the Kulluk recovery.

Later, the Unified Command oversaw the successful bid to wrest the Kulluk away from its rocky perch on Sitkalidak Island and tow it to sheltered Kiliuda Bay 30 miles away. The group also led a search for oil, debris and other pollution from the Kulluk and initial attempts to clean up lifeboats swept from the rig.

That cleanup effort is still under way. Shell is collaborating with the Old Harbor Native Corp., to clear the lifeboat debris, but the rough terrain and weather have made the cleanup a challenge.

Shell now plans to use an oceangoing floating dry dock to pull the Kulluk to an Asian port for major repairs, including work on the damaged outer hull, electrical system and hatches.

But first, three oceangoing tugs will pull the Kulluk from Kiliuda Bay to its purpose-built dock in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. During the 10-day trek, an oil spill response vessel and another tug will e accompanying the ships.

The tow plan was developed by Shell and Crowley Marine Services, the company that escorts tankers in Prince William Sound.

Before closing up shop, the Unified Command confirmed that Det Norske Veritas independently verified that the Kulluk is safe for towing. “As part of the preparations for the tow, independent warranty surveyor will approve the towing vessels and equipment arrangements and witness the connection of tugs to the rig,” the Unified Command said.

“The Coast Guard will continue to monitor the activities involved in prepping the Kulluk for movement,” said Capt. Paul Mehler III.

Separately, Shell also will be towing the drillship Noble Discoverer around the globe for repairs, following propulsion problems pulling into Seward, Alaska last November. It is destined for a Korean dry dock.

Shell had been hoping to use the Discoverer and Kulluk to continue boring wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska this summer. Company officials stress that Shell has made no decisions about this summer, but it appears unlikely the rigs will be able to make the potentially four-week journeys to Asia, undergo repairs, clear U.S. inspections and return to those Arctic waters in time for the short drilling season that begins in July.

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Read more ongoing FuelFix coverage of Shell’s Arctic drilling troubles:

Shell will repair rigs in Asia, possibly delaying Arctic work (Feb. 11)
Stranded Shell drill vessel won’t face state tax (Feb. 8)
Alaskans want role in feds’ Arctic drilling probe (Jan. 24)
Arctic drilling can be done safely, federal adviser says (Jan. 21)
Lawmaker: Did Shell move rig for financial reasons? (Jan. 11)
Steffy: A lot was riding on that snapped Arctic rig line (Jan. 11)
EPA raps Shell for Arctic air violations (Jan. 10)
Feds order Arctic drilling probe after rig accident(Jan. 8)
Rig grounding could put Shell’s Arctic drilling plans on ice(Jan. 5)
Activists want Obama to halt Arctic oil drilling (Jan. 4)
Shell spoof site drawing fresh attention after rig runs aground (Jan. 2)
Kulluk drilling rig accident stokes fresh fears on Arctic drilling (Jan. 1)