After mariners spent nearly a week battling and waiting out wicked winter seas, a salvage team has successfully boarded Royal Dutch Shell's ailing Arctic drill rig which has run aground on an island off the southwestern coast of Alaska's Kodiak Island.
Hours after the team returned to land, details about what it found and the implications for the next steps in any recovery effort remained closely guarded by the Unified Command structure in charge of the operation and communications with the press.
On New Year's Eve, poor weather and a string of mechanical mishaps forced the rig's escorts and a Coast Guard rescue vessel to abandon attempts to spare the rig from its rocky fate roughly 330 air miles south of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Now, the focus is on what to do next: Whether the oil rig Kulluk can be re-floated and safely moved to deeper water, or if damage from the grounding will force a different solution.
"We're going to do this smart. We're going to do this as careful as we can. She's in a difficult situation," Capt. Paul Mehler, a Coast Guard Commander acting as the federal on-scene coordinator for the response efforts, said during an evening press conference held by phone Wednesday.
Mehler was among a handful of command personnel who took an overflight of the grounding site, separate from the five-person team that boarded the Kulluk and aided in the set up of a specialized towing system.
The flight team traveled the island coastline, following the 200 foot rocky cliffs that towered over the narrow strip of sandy, rubbled beach that met the water's edge. The only environmental impact the crew saw from the air were four life rafts, presumed to be from the Kulluk. The thinking from the team is, if anything else from the rig was dispersed, it would have been visible in the same debris field as the rafts. They took this as an encouraging sign. The only sea life the crew encountered were sea birds making their way through the wind and rain.
"We are not in any way, shape or form going to make a lasting decision without adequate information," said Steve Russell of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, another command member who scouted the scene during the flight. Weather, he said, remains the salvage operation's main nemesis. On Wednesday the overflight team described encountering 30-knot winds, 12- to 16-foot seas and drizzling rain.
They offered limited details about what the onboard salvage team discovered: intact fuel tanks, a tank in a "void space" that was "sucking and blowing" -- cause for concern, and an otherwise seemingly intact rig that remained upright in 30 feet of water. The unified command promised to deliver Thursday a more in-depth assessment of the day's findings and how the salvage effort will proceed, acknowledging that the day's onboard salvage team did not enough time to do a full evaluation.
Tamer weather -- though far from calm -- provided enough of a window for the salvage crew to board the Kulluk for three hours beginning at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. It's unclear why the unified command overseeing the operation and communication with the public waited until after the close of the business day to report the day's successful mission. From the start, information about the ordeal of the Kulluk and its tug escorts has been limited, sometimes redundant, and has been offered in small bursts throughout each day.
The frustrated voyage, bound for Seattle but now halted, has punctuated Shell's return to the Arctic in search of oil and gas riches with a gift to environmental groups and others opposed to Arctic offshore development. One need look no further than the saga unfolding with the Kulluk for evidence Shell is unprepared for the rigors of a harsh Arctic marine environment, they have said. And this incident, in the state's southern waters at the edge of the tumultuous Gulf of Alaska, has happened with Coast Guard help close by at a permanent station -- the largest in the Pacific area -- on the island of Kodiak. In Arctic waters, just off of Alaska's northern shores, there is no permanent Coast Guard station, no deep water port for safe harbor, critics have been quick to remind.
Smit Salvage was also an early responder to the New Carissa shipwreck in 1999. The parts freighter, which ran aground in Coos Bay, Ore., stayed beached for almost a decade as responders tried to figure out how to remove it. Titan Maritime Corporation, a subsidiary of Crowley eventually removed the stern of the ship in 2008.
There was little other information released Wednesday as stakeholders waited to hear word on whether crews had boarded the Kulluk. On Tuesday, two crews attempted to board the Kulluk, but turned away, citing safety concerns over poor weather.
'Storm after Storm'
The salvage effort's weather window may last only a day or two, if that. A second storm is lined up to sweep over the region behind the one that's just now moving through. Kodiak has suffered what National Weather Forecaster Joshua Maloy described as "storm after storm rotating up from the Pacific Ocean." Another storm front delivering gale force winds – 35 to 40 miles per hour -- appears ready to blow through on Friday. On Wednesday, winds blew steadily from the south at 25 to 30 miles per hour, expected to peak around 35 to 40 miles per hour, and diminishing to maybe 15 to 25 miles per hour. Seas were also expected to remain at four to eight feet high, peaking around 12 to 14 feet.
What the salvage crews are experiencing now is a sea not nearly "as ravenous or quite as strong or quite as high" as the conditions that pummeled the nearly $300-million drilling rig and its escorts and rescuers days earlier, Maloy said.
The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a temporary flight restriction, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley is maintaining a safety zone of 1 nautical mile around the Kulluk Wednesday morning. Both restrictions were put in place to ensure the safety of response personnel, as well as mariners and aviators in the area, according to the Unified Command.
Mike Lutz with the Unified Command said there is no report of any oil sheen in the area, an observation reinforced by the overflight crew Wednesday. The Kulluk is carrying an estimated 136,000 gallons of diesel fuel and about 10,000 gallons of various lubes and oils according to the latest numbers from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
'We're from a maritime community'
The exact site of the grounding is on the southern side of Sitkalidak island, a small island adjacent to Kodiak. Most of the land on Sitkalidak is owned by the Old Harbor Native Corporation. The village of Old Harbor is located on Kodiak just across from the island, on the other side of a protected strait. In Old Harbor Wednesday, villagers were paying attention to the unfolding drama with the drill rig, but also busy with life as usual. Commercial fishing for cod is underway, and crab fishermen are gearing up for tanner crab season, which begins Jan. 15, said Melissa Berns, Vice President for the Alutiiq tribe of Old Harbor.
Everyone connected to the grounding has done a good job keeping the community in the loop from the beginning, Berns said, from updates when problems with the tows first developed to the ongoing issues presented by the grounding.
Nearly 150,000 gallons of petroleum products are on board the rig, some to run power equipment on the rig itself and most of the rest to provide stability for the vessel during transport in the open ocean. Concerns now have turned to protecting the area's salmon streams and sea lion and seal rookeries from contamination in the event the Kulluk begins to leak. To date, officials have maintained that the rig appears intact and that no sheens have been discovered during overflights.
Questions remain unanswered about the cause and preventability of failures suffered during the trip, from engine outages to broken tow lines, but in Old Harbor, Berns said people seem generally satisfied that there are times you just have to suffer through whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
"We're from a maritime community, and we are well aware of situations happening with marine vessels. It all goes with living with the conditions that we do out here. They just happened to come into a bad storm," she said.
Meanwhile, Old Harbor Native Corporation, which is said to be working with Shell on spill prevention options and access to its lands, has chosen to remain mum, telling reporters that it would comment only via a press release which was still being formulated.
A cascade of mishaps
The Kulluk's troubles started Thursday, when a tow shackle between the drilling rig and its tug, Shell's Aiviq, failed. A second towline was attached, but later the engines on the Aiviq failed, leaving the two vessels adrift at sea. The 266-foot diameter Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own.
Over the next several days, more tugs were called in from across Alaska, but all struggled to hold on to the drifting Kulluk. By Monday, rough seas and more problems forced a tug crew to let go of the Kulluk, sending it drifting into the rocky shoreline of Sitkalidak Island.
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. The Kulluk was one week into a three- to four-week journey from the busy Aleutian port of Dutch Harbor to Washington state, where the rig was expected to undergo routine maintenance in an effort to prepare for the 2013 drilling season.
Congress keeps tabs
On Tuesday Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who serves as the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, toured the Kulluk incident's Unified Command center and praised the team's rapid response.
"The focus now needs to be on securing the Kulluk and protecting local residents and the environment from potential fuel spills," Murkowski said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Begich, a long-time advocate of Arctic drilling, was traveling in Seattle, but said he and his staff had been in constant communication with the Kulluk crew. He was glad there were no injuries and no spill, but he remains curious about implementation of the contingency plan. He hopes to call a formal meeting to ask questions of Shell and other operators and to ultimately understand "all the pieces of the puzzle."
"What you're seeing is a real-life test," Begich said. "It's not what we want ... but now we need to ask the larger questions."
Will Kulluk survive and return to drill in 2013?
With the condition of the Kulluk still under evaluation, it was not immediately known how this week's grounding will affect Shell's intended 2013 drilling season.
Shell has in place most of the approvals it needs to return to work in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas this summer, and whether those plans will be imperiled by the current crisis will depend on the Kulluk's condition after salvage, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
Prior to the grounding near Kodiak, Shell intended to return to the Arctic with the Kulluk "to complete the well it started in 2012 and drill as many additional wells as possible," he said. Shell's other drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, is dependent on the Kulluk being operational. The two work together as back-up for one another, Smith said.
Meanwhile, until Shell can demonstrate its spill containment equipment is operational, it is restricted to drilling "top holes" only, wells which pull up short of petroleum-bearing zones, another hurdle the oil giant will have to overcome to successfully execute its long-sought Arctic exploration plans.
Through the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the Obama administration is keeping tabs on the grounding response Unified Command center in Anchorage. The agency pledges it will be as vigilant with its drilling oversight as it was in 2012. "All equipment Shell proposes to use in drilling operations must first satisfy rigorous inspection and testing standards. BSEE will continue its unprecedented oversight by having 24/7 inspector presence aboard Shell's rigs should drilling occur. Any approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards," said BSEE spokesman Nicholas Pardi.