The U.S. Coast Guard and Royal Dutch Shell Plc were fighting 70 mile-per-hour winds and 40-foot swells as they tried to assess damage to a floating oil drilling ship that ran aground on a remote Alaskan island.
Authorities haven’t been able to board people onto the Shell rig Kulluk because of the challenging conditions and are still watching the weather, said Jason Moore, a spokesman in Anchorage, Alaska, for the Unified Command, a response group that includes the Coast Guard and industry representatives. The Coast Guard was observing the rig overnight, he said in a telephone interview today.
“It was rocking a little bit, so it is responding to wave action,” he said. “It is stable. No sheen of any kind.”
The rig was stranded on the coast of Sitkalidak Island, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southwest of the town of Kodiak, according to a Coast Guard statement yesterday. Environmental groups yesterday called for a halt to the company’s efforts to drill in Arctic waters. Opponents had previously sued Shell to prohibit drilling off Alaska.
The rig went ashore at 8:48 p.m. Alaska time on Dec. 31.
The Kulluk has approximately 139,000 gallons of ultra-low-sulfur diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid on board. Shell owns the vessel while Noble Corp., a rig contractor, provides crew members and manages its drilling operations, John Breed, a spokesman for Geneva-based Noble, said today in a telephone interview.
An initial Coast Guard helicopter flight over the grounded rig didn’t detect any visible sign of a spill. More inspections were planned, while the approximately 250 people involved in response efforts were hampered by the winds and high seas, according to the statement.
“The weather is a little bit better today, but still difficult conditions,” Moore said. The earliest that salvage teams can go out is after daylight, which has been happening between 9 and 10 a.m. Alaska time, he said.
The state of Alaska will continue to monitor the rig site for environmental damage, Steve Russell, an official with the Department of Environmental Conservation, said yesterday. There are potential impacts to wildlife and native Alaskans, Russell said. The land on the coast near the rig site is owned by the Old Harbor Native Corp., he said.
Shell and its contractors are “no match” for Alaska’s weather and sea conditions, Lois N. Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement posted on the group’s website. The group called for the federal government to stop Shell’s drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
Shell released a statement last night saying that the incident didn’t involve drilling operations and that there was no threat of a crude oil release.
“We quickly mobilized experts to respond to this situation,” Shell said in its statement. “The Shell emergency response assets and contingencies that were deployed over the last four days represent the best available in the world.”
Shell has invested $4.5 billion in offshore leases and equipment and fought at least 50 lawsuits from environmental groups to begin drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas last year, the first wells in U.S. Arctic waters in about 20 years.
The other Arctic drilling vessel used by Shell last year, the Noble Discoverer owned by Noble, was held by the Coast Guard in Seward, Alaska, in November after it lost propulsion and inspectors found safety discrepancies. That ship will be towed to Seattle for repairs, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
Shell expects to resume drilling once sea ice melts later this year, Curtis Smith, an Alaska-based Shell spokesman, said in a telephone interview Dec. 30. The Hague-based company was forced to cancel drilling off Alaska in September because of damage to a dome designed to capture any underwater spill.
The Kulluk was en route to Seattle for repairs after drilling in the Beaufort Sea off the Alaska coast. The rig had been adrift and then was temporarily brought back under control before it went aground. The Kulluk’s crew were evacuated Dec. 29 as a precaution, Smith said.
The Coast Guard dispatched a cutter and rescue helicopters Dec. 28 after the Shell towing vessel Aiviq reported that its line to the Kulluk was separated in heavy seas, the Coast Guard said in a statement. Aiviq recaptured the barge, then went adrift itself when all four diesel engines quit because of contaminated fuel, Smith said.
A second Shell ship, the Nanuq, had joined the 360-foot Aiviq in towing the drilling rig south. The Nanuq is equipped to contain any oil spill, according to a Shell fact sheet. The company has also dispatched a tug, the Guardsman, and the Klamath, a 47-foot (8.3 meters) skimming vessel, to help in the recovery.
Both the Coast Guard and Shell will investigate why the tow boats lost control of the Kulluk, authorities said during a telephone news conference yesterday.
“There will be an investigation into the cause of this incident once we have the situation under control,” said Sean Churchfield, Shell’s Alaska operations manager.