Drilling rig set to weather fierce storm in small Alaska port

Facing 63-mph winds and 28-foot seas on Monday, two tugboats were towing Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig to safe harbor to weather the fierce storm in the Gulf of Alaska.

The tugboats were taking advantage of a break in the turbulent weather to move the rig to Port Hobron, on the southeast side of Kodiak Island. Winds and waves are expected to surge Monday evening.

At the same time, the Coast Guard was preparing to use two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters to ferry technicians to the Kulluk to inspect towlines and ensure they are secure.

“We have a brief weather window which provides the opportunity to get experts aboard the Kulluk to inspect the drilling unit and its tow set up,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District. “They will provide key onsite information about towing issues or concerns and allow the unified command to develop contingency plans accordingly.”

An opening in the weather also made it possible to connect tow lines early Monday morning, after at least two previous attempts failed Friday and Sunday.

“Seas calmed down this morning and they were able to attach those tows,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley.

Problems first began for the Kulluk on Thursday, when the tow line tethering it to a Shell-contracted ship broke and the engines on that vessel, the Aiviq, malfunctioned. At least two subsequent attempts to connect new tow lines failed, and the Coast Guard evacuated 18 crew members from the Kulluk amid the stormy seas.

Shell mechanics also replaced fuel injectors and purged potentially contaminated fuel on the tugboat Aiviq, bringing its engines back online.

Shell had 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.

The incident is unfolding close to a Coast Guard station in Kodiak, facilitating a quick response. In the past five days, the Coast Guard has deployed helicopters, C-130 aircraft and at least two cutters to assist the Kulluk and Shell’s contracted ships.

Meanwhile, Shell has deployed its own armada of contracted response vessels, including the Alert tugboat diverted from its normal role assisting tankers in Prince William Sound.

Curtis Smith, a Shell Alaska spokesman, said the company was working with Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and other federal, state, local and private partners to plan for potential scenarios for the Kulluk and the first responders on the scene.

Roughly 200 people are huddled in an Anchorage office building planning the response, speaking with crews of the response vessels and poring over weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Much of Sunday and Monday, officials were scrutinizing potential safe harbors for the Kulluk and the rescue ships traveling with it. At one point, the Shell-contracted ship MV Guardsman was sent north to do reconnaissance on potential sites, including small ports as well as sheltered bays.

The south side of Kodiak Island includes critical habitat for endangered Stellar sea lions.

“The communication between the different stakeholders involved in this response has been exceptional,” said Ostebo. “The ability to quickly adapt and safely coordinate efforts to maintain control of the Kulluk despite the harsh weather remain the key factors in a successful outcome.”

This is only the latest challenge for Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet, which finished drilling the first half of two wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska two months ago. 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.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that one other drilling rig sunk amid eerily similar conditions nearby more than three decades ago, when crews failed to attach a towline to a jack-up rig.