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Thirty Foot Waves, Arctic Storm Batter Shell's Grounded Oil Rig

'Shell stands to profit from drilling in the Arctic Ocean, yet we all bear the risks.'

Jon Queally, staff writer

Thirty-foot seas and an arctic storm are preventing rescue or salvage of a Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground in Alaska on New Year's Eve.

The drilling rig, named the Kulluk, has not yet broken apart, but sits precariously just off Sitkalidak Island in the southeast part of the state. Reports indicate that the ship is intact, but worries are heightened that chances of spilling the vessel's 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and other toxic lubricants increase with each passing hour.

“This grounding should serve as the tipping point to show our government that we are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean.” —Susan Murray, Oceana

As the Associated Press reports Wednesday:

A team of company, Coast Guard and local officials said they were mobilizing spill response equipment and preparing a plan in the event of a spill in the Partition Cove and Ocean Bay areas of the island. The area is home to at least two endangered species, as well as harbor seals, salmon, and sea lions.

The storm eased Tuesday, with gusts up to 35 mph and waves up to 30 feet high, and similar conditions were expected Wednesday. Officials were hoping to get marine experts onboard to take photos and videos, and then come up with a more complete salvage plan once weather permits.

“This grounding should serve as the tipping point to show our government that we are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean,” Susan Murray, Oceana deputy vice president, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe agreed. "The grounding of Shell's Arctic rig, which contains tens of thousands of gallons of fuel oil, is yet another example of how utterly incapable this company is of operating safely in one of the planet's most remote and extreme environments," he said.

"Shell has lurched from one Arctic disaster to the next, displaying staggering ineptitude every step of the way. Were the pristine environment of the frozen north not at risk of an oil spill it would be almost comical. Instead it’s tragic. We're moving closer to a major catastrophe in the Arctic and the US government appears unwilling to provide either the needed oversight or emergency backup the company's incompetence requires."

Murrary continued by saying, "Shell stands to profit from drilling in the Arctic Ocean, yet we all bear the risks. We hope that this accident will not become a major environmental disaster. The area in which the Kulluk grounded is critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions and threatened sea otters; and there are important fisheries in the area that help provide livelihoods for Alaskans and support our economy."

"Rather than opening up the high north to oil firms we need to keep this fragile place off-limits to reckless industrialization," concluded Ayliffe. "Greenpeace and the millions of people who have joined us to save the Arctic will be keeping a very close eye on developments in Kodiak."

In a statement released Tuesday, US Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), the minority chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, echoed sentiments of environmentalists and Arctic drilling critics by saying: "Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies."

"Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment," he said.

The Alaska Dispatch posits the question: Will Shell's grounded drilling ship impact US energy policy in Arctic? And reports:

Shell has invested more than $4.5 billion since the mid-2000s in a quest to reignite a controversial Arctic drilling program that it started in the 1980s. But from lawsuits to mishaps like the grounding of its Kulluk drilling ship this week, the Netherlands-based oil giant has seemingly faced one problem -- one more delay -- after another.

The $290-million Kulluk and its tug weren't operating above the Arctic Circle when the problems started late last week. And the Coast Guard's Alaska headquarters at Kodiak are located relatively nearby the grounded Kulluk, making response efforts easier than in the Arctic, where the agency has no base.

What would happen if similar troubles ever occur in the much more remote Arctic Ocean? No one involved with the recovery would speculate Tuesday.

“We’re learning that oceans, while beautiful, are dangerous and unforgiving,” Michael LeVine, senior Pacific counsel for the environmental group Oceana, told the New York Times. “Shell has demonstrated again and again that it’s not prepared to operate in Alaskan waters.

Reporting on the pattern of trouble encountered by Shell's drilling excursions in the last year, the Times adds:

The grounding was the latest in a series of mishaps to befall Shell’s ambitious plans to prospect for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off the North Slope of Alaska.

Shell halted drilling for oil in September after equipment failures, unexpected ice floes, operational missteps and regulatory delays forced the company to scale back its plans.

Its drilling rigs completed two shallow pilot holes and left the Arctic in late fall to return to Seattle for maintenance work but have encountered problems in transit.

If the Kulluk, which Shell upgraded in recent years at a cost of nearly $300 million, is wrecked or substantially damaged, it will be hard for the company to find a replacement and receive the numerous government permits needed to resume drilling in July, as planned.


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