Coast Guard lifts detention order for Arctic drilling rig

Shell’s once-grounded Arctic drilling rig is now free to begin its long trek to an Asian shipyard for repairs, with the Coast Guard’s decision Thursday to lift a detention order that has been keeping the vessel in Alaska’s Kiliuda Bay.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III lifted the order after a classification society affirmed that the conical drilling rig Kulluk was safe for travel, nearly two months after beached on Sitkalidak Island.

The Kulluk ran aground on the island on Dec. 31, after a five-day fight to tow the rig through stormy seas. It was later yanked free and pulled to Kiliuda Bay, about 30 miles away, for inspections and some repairs to make it safe for transit.

Shell later concluded that damage to the Kulluk’s hull and electrical systems require major repairs in a yet-to-be-determined Asian shipyard. Separately, the drillship Noble Discover, which Shell has been using in Arctic waters north of Alaska, will be sent to Korea for work.

Initially, Shell plans to pull the Kulluk to a purpose-built dock in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where the vessel will wait for a massive floating dry dock to carry it an Asian shipyard. During the roughly 10-day trek, an oil spill response vessel and another tug will be accompanying the ships.

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

But the rig is unlikely to set sail for Dutch Harbor soon. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith noted that there has been poor weather in the region recently, and there is no set departure date for the Kulluk.

Mehler said the Coast Guard would keep a close watch on the Kulluk during its next journey. “We will monitor the movement of the Kulluk to Dutch Harbor and will engage if needed,” he said.

Shell is working with the Old Harbor Native Corp., to clear lifeboats that were swept from the rig after it collided with the Sitkalidak shore. Rough terrain and bad weather have made the cleanup a challenge.

Det Norske Veritas previously verified that the Kulluk is safe for towing.

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.