Tow line breaks as Shell drilling rig pulled to safe harbor

Despite a successful Coast Guard evacuation of 18 crew members from a Shell Oil drilling rig stranded near the Alaska coast, the company was struggling  to tow the vessel to safe harbor.

As of Sunday afternoon, the ships were roughly 20 miles south of Kodiak Island, Alaska, having survived a night of severe weather in the Gulf of Alaska, where the vessels were battered by 12-20-foot swells and gusts of more than 70 miles per hour. But the tow line connecting the Kulluk conical drilling unit to two tugboats had separated by late Sunday.

Shell said it “is evaluating all options for reconnecting with the Kulluk,” which requires a tow because it does not have its own propulsion engines.

“Safety of our responders remains our top priority, and we are evaluating options for safely re-establishing a tow with the Kulluk,” said Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III, the federal on-scene commander.

Tow lines have proved stubbornly difficult to connect and keep connected during the emergency, which began Thursday when the tugboat Aiviq first lost the line tethering it to the Kulluk conical drilling unit.

Although the line was reconnected, the Aiviq then experienced multiple engine failures, perhaps due to water in the ship’s fuel.

Repairs were conducted Saturday with some equipment flown by Coast Guard helicopters to the site, as workers replaced fuel injectors and purged intake systems of potentially contaminated fuel. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard evacuated 18 employees from the Kulluk.

Sunday afternoon before the tow lines separated, the Aiviq and a second Shell-contracted ship, the Nanuq, were both towing the Kulluk to safe harbor. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said that the destination had not yet been determined.

The Coast Guard and Shell have mounted a broad response to the stranded ships and crew.

The Coast Guard deployed MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters to ferry equipment parts to the scene, did aerial surveillance with its C-130 aircraft and deployed two cutters to help out.

Meanwhile, a Shell-contracted support ship, MV Guardsman, arrived around 2 p.m. Friday and the Nanuq response vessel showed up around 6:30 a.m. Saturday. A third tugboat, the Alert, arrived from Prince William Sound on Sunday afternoon; it joins the Guardsman as a vessel of opportunity able to assist in the tow if needed.

The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley is on its way from Kodiak to assist as well, after initially running into trouble trying to help out on Friday. While trying to run a tow line to the Kulluk to help keep it stable, the line caught in one of the Haley’s propellers, damaging the ship and forcing it back to port.

“To help ensure safety of all involved, we have directed multiple Coast Guard assets to the area, including the coast Guard Cutter Hickory, our Kodiak-based HC-130s and Jayhawk helicopter aircrews,” Mehler said.

Shell has been towing the Kulluk south to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance, after using the drilling rig to bore the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. A 29-year-old conical drilling unit, the Kulluk spent more than a dozen years hibernating in Canada before Shell snapped it up for its new Arctic venture..

Mike LeVine, senior counsel with Oceana, noted that “we are fortunate that this latest incident happened close to the Coast Guard station in Kodiak.” Environmentalists opposed to exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic have stressed the lack of infrastructure, including Coast Guard response vessels.

“Response equipment was nearby, and parts to fix the Aiviq’s broken engines could be dropped off by helicopter.” LeVine added. “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.”

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.