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Shell Oil Rig Adrift in Alaskan Arctic

Crisis raises flags about oil companies' preparedness and dangers of drilling

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

A Shell oil rig is adrift in the Alaskan Arctic, highlighting dangers of drilling in remote ocean regions. (Photo: Alaska Dispatch)

Once again highlighting the risks of drilling in far-off and freezing seas, officials are struggling to secure an unmanned Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig set adrift in the waters south of Kodiak Island.

Pointing out the danger of exploratory drilling in remote locations, senior counsel with Oceana Mike LeVine said, “If this had happened in the Arctic Ocean, Shell could have been on its own, 1,000 miles from the help it needed. The rough conditions that prevented a rescue... could be compounded by darkness and ice in the Arctic.”

Monday morning, towlines securing the rig, the Kulluk, to two vessels are finally in place after being lost late last week amidst the fury of near-hurricane winds and 28-foot seas, the Associated Press reports.

They continue:

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith says weather conditions improved and the first tow line was attached to the ship at 12:45 a.m. Monday. The second line was attached sometime later.

[Smith] says officials are evaluating the next step in getting the drill rig to a safe harbor. Smith says the weather remains stormy.

According to the Anchorage Daily News:


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The $290 million, 266-foot diameter Kulluk is a conical-shaped mobile rig that began drilling a single exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this year. But it cannot propel itself, and a series of failures involving it began on Thursday during a stormy Gulf of Alaska crossing.

The Kulluk lost its towline from the Aiviq [a new ship commissioned by Shell for its Arctic work] on Thursday. A second towline was attached for a time, but then early Friday all four engines on the Aiviq failed. The Coast Guard sent the Alex Haley, a 282-foot cutter. It delivered a towline to the Aiviq, which was still attached to the Kulluk, but the sheer mass of the ship and the drilling rig, combined with 40 mph winds and building 35-foot seas, broke the connection and the line became tangled in the cutter's propeller and damaged it.

Fortunately, no oil has been spilled during the incident, Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation reports. However, this is just the latest misfortune to befall Shell as they've endevoured to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, Shell's supposed oil spill 'containment dome' was damaged during testing, preventing earlier drilling. Also, their "other drilling rig, a converted log carrier called the Noble Discoverer, recently was cited by the Coast Guard for problems with safety and pollution discharge equipment."

On Saturday, the Kulluk's 18-person crew was evacuated to Kodiak in two Coast Guard helicopters. A video shows the Kulluk bobbing in rolling seas as a helicopter approaches to lower a basket and lift the crew members out, one by one.

Eerily similar, in October 1980 a jack-up drilling rig sank after 18 crew members were evacuated in the face of rough seas in the North Pacific 650 miles south of Kodiak Island.

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