Salvage crew inspects grounded Arctic drilling rig

Coast Guard officials took advantage of a break in fierce winds and high seas on Wednesday to put a salvage crew and emergency towing equipment on Shell’s grounded Arctic drilling rig.

After a Coast Guard helicopter lowered the five-member salvage team onto the beached Kulluk rig, they conducted a three-hour structural assessment that will guide plans for freeing the vessel from its rocky perch.

The 29-year-old conical drilling unit plowed into rocks on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island on Monday night amid stormy seas that have hampered a broad response effort mounted by Shell, Alaska agencies, the Coast Guard and other partners. At times, seas climbed four stories high and gusts hit 70 miles per hour.

But midday Wednesday, winds and waves, giving officials their first close-up view at the Kulluk since it went aground. Smit Salvage, the company now assessing the best way to retrieve the Kulluk, also assisted the beached Costa Concordia cruise ship near Italy last year.

The Kulluk remains upright and rocking, with no signs of a spill, but about 140,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel are locked inside the vessel, threatening to contaminate critical habitat for endangered Stellar sea lions, threatened sea otters and eiders.

During a fly over the area Wednesday, Coast Guard, Alaska and Shell officials said they saw scant wildlife along the rocky bluff and no debris, save for some of the Kulluk’s lifeboats floating nearby. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III said he was “encouraged” by the scene.

See more: Coast Guard releases video of grounded Arctic rig

“There is still no signs of any sheen or environmental impact, and the Kulluk appears to be stable,” Mehler said.

Back in Anchorage, hundreds of people are poring over marine data, strategizing ways to salvage the beached rig and mobilizing spill resources in case some 140,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel leak out of the Kulluk. The fuel is located in three tanks clustered together inside the double-hulled vessel; a void space separates the tanks and the sea.

“This is a very large and complex response and it is important that the American public and our elected officials understand the dangerous and difficult challenges being faced by the response crews,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo. “We are continuing our collaborated response with other shareholders in the unified command until the grounded Kulluk no longer poses a threat to the pristine Alaska maritime environment.”

The episode has raised the specter of a fuel spill in the region and provided fresh fodder to drilling foes who insist Arctic oil exploration is too risky to allow. It also casts doubt on whether Shell Oil Co. will be able to resume its hunt for Arctic oil this year.

Shell drilled the first half of two wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last year and plans to finish them and others once ice clears this summer.

But even if Shell can rescue the grounded rig, it is not clear it could be repaired in time for planned drilling this summer, or that Shell would be able to secure federal permits needed to resume the work.

After buying the Kulluk for an undisclosed sum, Shell sunk some $300 million into renovations. It is unlikely that Shell could find a replacement, if needed, in time to launch drilling with it this summer.

This is just the latest mishap in Shell’s $5 billion Arctic drilling operation, and it is sure to spark new scrutiny of the company’s next steps as well as the dangers of searching for crude in the cold, forbidding region. Shell is forging a new generation of Arctic drilling, and other companies with leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas are waiting in the wings.

Other high-profile problems included the drifting of Shell’s contracted drillship Noble Discoverer near Dutch Harbor, Alaska last summer. Later, Shell’s first-of-its-kind spill containment barge was damaged during certification tests. Finally, weeks after drilling was done for the year, a fire broke out on the Discoverer’s rig stack, and safety and pollution-control system deficiencies were discovered on the ship in November.

“Shell has lurched from one Arctic disaster to the next, displaying staggering ineptitude every step of the way,” said Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe. “The grounding of Shell’s Arctic rig . . . is yet another example of how utterly incapable this company is of operating safely in one of the planet’s most remote and extreme environments.”

Shell officials stressed that the incident didn’t involve drilling and emphasized that there no chance of a crude oil spill.

“We quickly mobilized experts to respond to this situation,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. “And we can confidently say that the Shell emergency response assets and contingencies that were deployed over the last four days represent the best available in the world.”

While the biggest natural foe for drilling in the Arctic Ocean is ice, high seas and winds are common in the north Pacific and waters west of Alaska, particularly during winter months. Shell is facing new scrutiny for its decision to send the Kulluk and its towboat Aiviq on a two-week voyage from Dutch Harbor to a Seattle shipyard on Dec. 21.

“Winter weather in the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska is notoriously bad,” said Andy Dixon, an Anchorage-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “We expect to have big storms out here.”

What started out as a routine operation quickly unraveled when the Kulluk hit the first of three storms that went through the area in succession. National Weather Service meteorologists started to identify the storms by Wednesday, a day before the Aiviq first lost its tow line to the Kulluk and suffered engine failures.

Stormy seas prevented other tugboats from wresting control of the drifting rig after the Coast Guard evacuated 18 crew members on Saturday night.

“By Wednesday or Thursday, we were starting to get a sense there was going to be at least one big storm,” Dixon said. “By Friday, it became clear that it looked like three in a row.”

Atmospheric models in the region are far more limited than those used to predict weather in the lower 48 states and typically are capable of predicting weather no more than 60 hours out.

Shell would not have known the three storms were brewing when it dispatched the Kulluk and the Aiviq on their long, two-week voyage to Seattle. But the company was aware the area is frequently pounded by winter storms.

According to an Oceana analysis of historical weather data, winds reach gale force in the Gulf of Alaska 13 percent of December and January.

“It’s the ocean in Alaska. It’s unpredictable. It’s unforgiving. It’s risky. And it’s the middle of winter,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel with Oceana. “If you’re going to tow a 266-foot drill rig through a storm-ridden area, you really ought to be prepared.”

Lois Epstein, a professional engineer and Arctic Program director for the Wilderness Society, said the episode raises questions about why the vessels continued into the stormy seas.

“I think it’s fair to question the decisionmaking to go forward,” she said. At some point, Epstein speculated, crew members made the decision to keep heading southeast instead of turning around or seeking safe harbor.

The Kulluk does not have propulsion engines and must be towed from place to place. Shaped like an upside-down umbrella, it is designed to break and push away encroaching ice.

Those same attributes that make it ice-worthy during drilling may make it more vulnerable during transit.

“The rig itself is just so large, and it was bobbing and tumbling,” Epstein said. “It was designed for safety and stability in ice, not safety and stability in 40-foot seas.”

Sean Churchfield, with Shell, told reporters Tuesday that the company had all necessary approvals before sending the Aiviq and Kulluk on their trek. That included the signoff by the Coast Guard and the ABS classification society on the maritime plan attesting to the vessels’ seaworthiness.

Shell also advised the Coast Guard of its own tow plan. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith noted that Coast Guard leaders have said they believed the Aiviq was capable of safely towing the Kulluk to Seattle.

“If we didn’t feel the same way, we wouldn’t have started on that journey,” said Smith, adding that when the vessels left Dutch Harbor, “the weather forecast indicated a favorable two-week window.”

The Kulluk had been drilling the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea until Oct. 31, then spent about two weeks traveling to Dutch Harbor. Once there, it underwent a series of inspections, as Shell decided whether to conduct off-season maintenance work on the rig in Dutch Harbor or at a bigger shipyard in Seattle.

Had Shell docked the Kulluk in Dutch Harbor for the winter, the company may have faced a tax bill from Alaska, which taxes all oil infrastructure in state waters. But that could also have been averted by periodically moving the Kulluk a few miles out to federal waters.

Smith denied the prospect of higher taxes played any role in the decision to move the Kulluk to Seattle.

“It’s something we were aware of,” Smith acknowledged. But “it did not impact our overall or our general decision to leave in December.”

Smith noted that the Seattle shipyard has more assets than the facility in Dutch Harbor, making it a better fit for planned off-season maintenance work.

“Dutch Harbor is not a working shipyard,” Smith said. “Logistically, it’s very challenging if you’re trying to ferry in workers or parts.”

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