ANCHORAGE, ALASKA—The U.S. Coast Guard was trying to determine Tuesday whether a strong Alaska storm had abated enough to allow for a helicopter to assess the condition of a drilling rig that ran aground in shallow water off a small island.
If conditions are safe, the helicopter would also lower experts to the Kulluk to get a close look at the rig and determine if it is leaking fuel, said Curtis Smith, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC employee speaking for a unified command center set up in an Anchorage hotel.
Storm conditions remained severe Tuesday morning with the grounded rig likely taking a pounding. Winds were reported at up to 112 km/h, with waves 11-metre and 14-metre swells. Some waves overnight reached 15 metres, the National Weather Service said.
“We are doing whatever we can do to prepare,” said unified command center spokeswoman Destin Singleton said.
The Kulluk is carrying 568,000 litres of diesel and about 45,000 litres of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. “The condition of the Kulluk has not been confirmed,” unified command said in a status report issued about 12 hours after the grounding.
The drilling rig’s difficulties go back to Thursday when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island as it was being towed to Seattle for maintenance. The rig grounded Monday night on a sand and gravel shore off the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.
“Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies,” Markey said. “Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”
The Kulluk was being towed Monday by a 110-metre anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of the storm. Sitkalidak is on the southeast side of Kodiak Island.
About 4:15 p.m., the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 16 to 24 kilometres off shore and grounding was inevitable, Coast Guard Cmdr. Shane Montoya, the acting federal on-scene coordinator, told reporters.
“Once the Aiviq lost its tow, we knew the Alert could not manage the Kulluk on its own as far as towing, and that’s when we started planning for the grounding,” he said.
Susan Childs, Shell’s on-scene coordinator, said it was too early to know how the vessel would react to the pounding of the storm when it was aground and stationary. She was optimistic about its salvage prospects and chances for staying intact.
“The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks are isolated in the center of the vessel and encased in very heavy steel,” she said.
The Kulluk is designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters and underwent $ 292 million in technical upgrades since 2006 to prepare for Alaska offshore exploration. The drill ship worked during the short 2012 open water season off Alaska’s north coast. Its ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull can deflect moving ice downward and break it into pieces.
When disconnected from a well, it’s designed to handle seas to 12 metres. Garth Pulkkinen of Noble Corp., the operator of the drill ship, said it was never in danger of capsizing.
With bad weather predicted, the Kulluk’s crew was evacuated Saturday.
Shell’s Arctic campaign has been bedevilled by problems. A second drill ship, the Discoverer, was briefly detained in December by the Coast Guard in Seward, Alaska, because of safety concerns. A mandatory oil-containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, failed for months to meet Coast Guard requirements for seaworthiness and a ship mishap resulted in damage to a critical piece of equipment intended to cap a blown well.
With files from Reuters