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Shell drilling rig goes aground off Alaska

02 January 2013

An oil rig owned by Royal Dutch Shell that ran aground off Alaska on the night of December 31, is still being battered by winds and high seas. The Kulluk, operated by Noble Drilling, was being towed south for repairs at a shipyard in Washington State in advance of the 2013 drilling season, when crews ran into trouble during a winter storm on December 27. 

The grounding of the rig is a blow to Shell's $4.5 billion offshore programme in Alaska
The grounding of the rig is a blow to Shell's $4.5 billion offshore programme in Alaska

In a series of mishaps, towing equipment broke, engines on the primary tug failed, and a series of relief vessels, including a US Coast Guard cutter, were unable to maintain control of the drifting rig. 

Meanwhile, the storm increased in strength, with winds reaching 70 knots and waves topping 50 feet. A Coast Guard helicopter removed the rig’s small transport crew of 18 in difficult conditions and it ran aground just off Sitkalidak Island, near the eastern end of Kodiak Island.

The Kulluk is carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of other hazardous fluids onboard. No oil has been spotted in the water and there is currently no evidence of damage to the rig’s hull, Coast Guard officials said on January 1. 

A conference has been convened in Anchorage by the Unified Command with more than 200 members including the Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Royal Dutch Shell and Noble Drilling as well as other groups. The command identified four priorities for its response: safety, oil spill prevention, assessment of the scene, and the salvage of the Kulluk.

The Coast Guard hopes to land a crew of salvage experts onboard to assess any damage and help formulate a plan to refloat the Kulluk. About 500 personnel are involved in the response.

The incident highlights the serious risks inherent in the development of Alaska’s offshore hydrocarbon potential.

The grounding of the rig, weighing nearly 28,000 gross tons, is a blow to Shell's $4.5 billion offshore program in Alaska.

Reuters quoted Susan Childs, emergency incident commander for Shell, as saying she believed that a significant spill was unlikely because of the Kulluk's design, with diesel fuel tanks isolated in the centre of the vessel and encased in very heavy steel.

But the leading Democrat on the US House of Representatives' Natural Resources Committee, Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, said this incident and others illustrated the perils of drilling offshore in the area.

"Oil companies cannot currently drill safely in the foreboding conditions of the Arctic, and drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment," he said.

Update: On January 3, a team of six experts from Smit Salvage was airlifted onto the rig by a Coast Guard helicopter, and an emergency towing system has also been placed on board.

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