Coast Guard assisting drilling rig stranded near Alaska

The Coast Guard has evacuated 18 employees from a stranded Shell drilling rig and is assisting the tugboat that was heaving it across turbulent western Alaska waters.

Problems first befell the tugboat Aiviq as it towed the Kulluk conical drilling unit about 50 miles south of Kodiak, Alaska on Thursday.

Battered by 20-foot seas and winds of up to 40 miles per hour, the Aiviq tugboat lost its tow line to the Kulluk, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley. Once the line was reconnected, the Aiviq experienced “multiple engine failures,” perhaps due to water in the ship’s fuel.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the Aiviq’s main propulsion engines experienced the loss of power, but “the use of power generators allowed the Aiviq to avoid significant drift with the Kulluk in tow.”

The Coast Guard has been coordinating a response with Shell Oil Co., which has been using the Kulluk to drill an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. The Kulluk has been traveling south to Seattle where it will undergo scheduled maintenance work.

The Coast Guard deployed a C-130 aircraft to monitor the scene and sent its cutter Alex Haley to help out. Meanwhile, the Shell-contracted support ship MV Guardsman arrived around 2 p.m. Alaska time, and Shell’s Nanuq response vessel is expected to arrive tomorrow.

All four of the Aiviq’s main engines were functional by mid afternoon Wednesday.

Problems arose when Coast Guard responders aboard the cutter tried to attach a tow line to help keep the Aiviq in place. The tow line got wrapped around one of the cutter’s propellers, damaging it and limiting the vessel to a single propeller, Mosley said.

The damage forced the Alex Haley to return to port, and the Coast Guard mobilized its cutter Hickory, which is expected to arrive in the area Saturday afternoon.

“We are cascading assets into the theater to help secure the Aiviq and the Kulluk,” Smith said. “Our priority remains the safety of our personnel and the environment. All of our efforts are dedicated to making sure the crews on these vessels are safe.”

By late Friday, workers were able to connect a tow line from the Guardsman to the Aiviq, still attached to the Kulluk, so it can help pull both to safe harbor. In a joint update Friday evening, Shell, the Coast Guard and Edison Chouest, which owns the Aiviq and Nanuq, said they were assessing options for towing the vessels and had secured additional assets in case more help is needed.

The rough weather conditions are only expected to deteriorate over the coming hours and days.

Mike LeVine, senior counsel with Oceana, noted that “we are fortunate that this latest incident happened close to the Coast Guard station in Kodiak.”

“Response equipment was nearby, and parts to fix the Aiviq’s broken engines could be dropped off by helicopter.” LeVine said. “If this had happened in the Arctic Ocean, Shell could have been on its own, 1,000 miles from the help it needed. The rough conditions that prevented a rescue today could be compounded by darkness and ice in the Arctic.”

As many as eighteen crew members were on board the Kulluk, and two dozen are on the Aiviq — far fewer than would be on board if the vessels were poised to begin drilling.

“Our primary concern is ensuring the safety of the personnel aboard the Aiviq and Kulluk,” said Capt. Paul Mehler III, commander of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. “We are working closely with industry representatives to provide assistance and to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”

Shell said late Saturday that all 18 workers on the Kullluk had been evacuated by the Coast Guard to Kodiak.

This is just the latest misfortune to befall Shell, roughly two months after it ended its Arctic drilling season.

The Noble Discoverer, which, unlike the Kulluk, moves under its own engines, had propulsion problems pulling into Seward in mid November, prompting a Coast Guard inspection that revealed additional safety system and pollution-control system deficiencies.

A fire also broke out in the rig stack on the Discoverer while it was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska in mid November.