Inspectors set to look at rescued Shell drilling rig

A massive campaign to free a grounded Arctic drilling rig that employed more than a dozen ships and some 730 people cleared a big hurdle Monday, as salvagers pulled the vessel to safe harbor in Alaska.

Salvage teams anchored the Kulluk rig in Kodiak Island’s Kiliuda Bay after arriving there at 10 a.m. Alaska Standard Time, 1 p.m. Monday in Houston.

But for Shell, which owns the 266-foot conical drilling unit and planned to use it to continue a $5 billion quest for Arctic oil this summer, the work is just beginning.

Salvage specialists will conduct a detailed inspection of its hull, fuel tanks and equipment. There were no signs of leaking fuel from the rig during its 45-mile voyage from Sitkalidak Island, but 150,000 gallons of diesel and other petroleum liquids are on board.

Shell may send dive teams and remotely operated vehicles underwater to search for damage to the Kulluk’s hull. It will remain anchored in Kiliuda Bay at least until the Coast Guard deems it safe to travel again, possibly after extensive repairs.

“This is a major milestone in the recovery operation,” said Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

The Kulluk beached along Sitkalidak Island on New Year’s Eve, following a failed five-day fight to tow the rig to safe harbor amid four-story waves and 70-mph winds. Shell had been using its chartered anchor-handling vessel, Aiviq, to pull the unpropelled conical drilling rig across the Gulf of Alaska when the tow line broke and the Aiviq’s four engines malfunctioned on Dec. 27.

On Monday, workers on an oil spill response vessel trailing the Kulluk as it traveled to Kiliuda Bay in the predawn darkness used infrared equipment to monitor the floating rig and saw no signs of leaking fuel, officials said.

“They conducted monitoring along the entire route with no evidence of pollution,” said Steven Russell, with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Officials had not conducted water sampling as of midday Monday.

But workers will have to remove the Kulluk’s fuel-filled lifeboats from water and coastline. Overflights are being conducted Monday to search for other debris and any signs of contamination in an area that provides critical habitat for sea lions and sea otters.

Mehler pledged to conduct a complete “shoreline assessment and cleanup to ensure this response leaves no footprint on Alaska’s environment.”

Salvage specialists took advantage of high tide conditions to float the Kulluk at 10:10 p.m. Alaska Standard Time on Sunday. They did not attempt to lighten it by removing  cargo or equipment.

A tow line was connected earlier in the evening, and workers initially applied tension on the line, said Sean Churchfield, Shell Alaska operations manager.

“As the high water approached, the salvage crew increased tension on the line,” Churchfield said. “The Kulluk came off reasonably easy.”

Russell said there was enthusiasm in the Anchorage command center where a “unified command” involving Shell, the Coast Guard and other partners was directing operations.

“Everybody was yelling and screaming and very, very happy,” he said. “Everybody on site and in the command center was overjoyed.”

Mehler acknowledged “There was certainly a sense of relief,” but that was tempered by “recognizing that now we have a lot more work to do.”

“We could not be more impressed with the caliber of the response and recovery crews who were safe and meticulous in their effort to move the Kulluk offshore,” said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith. “Ultimately, what matters is no one was hurt and there was no environmental impact.”

Some industry representatives have mused that the successful retrieval of the Kulluk — without major injuries to workers or, it appears, substantial environmental harm — shows things worked well during emergency conditions.

But environmentalists said the entire episode should prompt federal regulators to reassess Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.

“We were lucky to avoid a major catastrophe. We were lucky the accident happened close to Coast Guard facilities. We were lucky the weather allowed for salvage. And we were lucky an accident like this did not happen while the Kulluk was drilling,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s Pacific deputy vice president. “However, Alaskan waters demand more than luck.”

Greenpeace Arctic campaigner Ben Ayliffe said even though the Kulluk is now free, “Shell’s regulation is in tatters,” following a series of mishaps that have befallen the company’s Arctic drilling program, including the drifting of the drillship Noble Discoverer in Dutch Harbor last year and a Coast Guard investigation of deficiencies on that ship.

Ayliffe suggested that Shell’s shareholders should be asking questions too. “Investors will be watching this latest mishap and asking how much longer Shell can persevere with a multi-billion dollar Arctic program that has been characterized by one glaring operational blunder after another.”

Shell officials emphasize that the problems with the Discoverer and the Kulluk happened during transit — not during active drilling operations.

It is unclear whether the Kulluk can be repaired in time for any drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer, even if regulators allow the work. \The 29-year-old conical drilling unit is uniquely designed to weather floating ice, and there aren’t many similarly specialized rigs available to do the work.

Even if Shell Oil Co., could secure an Arctic-ready rig, it almost certainly would not obtain required air pollution permits for the replacement vessel in time to resume drilling wells in the Beaufort Sea this July.

Under Shell’s government-approved oil spill response plans and broad drilling blueprints for the region, the company is obliged to have a second rig in the region to drill a relief well in case of an emergency.

If the Kulluk is sidelined, Shell could seek to salvage salvage some of its planned 2013 season by resuming “top-hole drilling,”  which  doesn’t penetrate underground zones that could contain oil and gas. It worked under that same limitation last summer after  its oil spill response system did not win approval and get to the area in time.

Shell officials would not speculate on any impact to its planned drilling until after a detailed evaluation of the rig’s condition.

“With the Kulluk now safely offshore, inspections will begin immediately to better understand the rig’s overall health,” Smith said. “Once complete, we will know more about the Kulluk’s immediate future, including its availability for the 2013 drilling season.”

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