Shell drilling rig Kulluk under tow toward Beaufort Sea

One of Shell Oil Co.'s drilling rigs left Dutch Harbor on Monday morning, headed to the Beaufort Sea in anticipation of being able to drill an exploration well this year.

The Kulluk, a conical-shaped rig, is under tow to the Beaufort drilling site, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. The journey will take a couple of weeks.

No drilling can begin until Shell secures permits for individual wells. And federal regulators say those permits won't be issued until its oil spill containment barge is finished, inspected and certified, which hasn't happened yet.

"We're been waiting for six years to get to this point," Smith said Monday. "We now feel like we are days away from achieving our ultimate goal, which is drilling. We are not going to rush this last part of the process."

Both Shell and the Coast Guard said progress continues on the barge, the Arctic Challenger, which crews are working on at a shipyard in Bellingham, Wash.

Deficiencies remain in basic lifesaving items including a fire-fighting system, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick.

Shell is confident the barge will pass all inspections and an in-water test. Once it is cleared, it will take 14 to 18 days to get to its destination in the Arctic, Smith said.

The Kulluk will remain on standby during the fall whaling season, which begins later this month, he said.

"It's only after that that the Kulluk will connect to anchors that have already been staged there," he said.

Anchorage Daily News /