Royal Dutch Shell deserves to be commended for its handling of the aftermath of the Kulluk grounding. I am very impressed because they listen and care, something that can't always be said about big companies.
Shell also is safety oriented. After observing their handling of this situation, I'm convinced that safety and protection of the environment top the list in everything they do.
The removal of the Kulluk from the rocks on Sitkalidak Island was just short of a miracle, made possible because of the perseverance of the Shell management and staff. They insisted on saving the rig and doing it in a manner that was safe for those involved as well as the wildlife and habitat.
I and the people I represent are intimately familiar with the area where the rig landed. The coastal areas of the Gulf of Alaska where this rig went aground sustain some of the worst water and wave action that anyone can imagine. Surf of 40 to 60 feet pounding against rocky shoals and cliffs usually grinds up anything that lands on them within a matter of hours.
In the case of the Kulluk, days of relentless pounding by enormous seas did not even breach the vessel's hull. There may be some damage to the top structure -- lifeboats and external gear -- from waves that broke over the deck, some 40 feet above the waterline. But overall, it held up extremely well. This rig's design and its strength show that the oil industry does know what it is doing.
What we at Old Harbor were most impressed with was Shell's concern for the environment, the culture of Old Harbor people and their subsistence way of life. Sitkalidak Island is nearly 100 percent owned by Old Harbor Native Corporation and the island is very important to its people's history, culture and subsistence gathering.
Over 200 years ago the Russians attacked the Natives of Old Harbor. Women and children sought safety on Refuge Rock but that didn't stop the Russians, who killed at least 2,000 islanders. The people of Old Harbor feel very strongly about ensuring the lands around Refuge Rock are protected. They feel just as strongly about protecting the rest of the island as a subsistence-rich area for shellfish, seabirds, sea lions, seal, fish, bear, deer and many plants.
We commend Shell because they got the message immediately and assigned those needs top priority in decisions made with regard to what they would or would not do in removing the rig from the shoreline of Sitkalidak Island. They are continuing to keep these concerns top priority as they work to repair the Kulluk in Kiliuda Bay.
Accidents happen. In this case, Shell's performance was stellar. I can't say that about the tug operations that created the problem. Most masters who run that route would have pulled into a sheltered area to wait out the storm. That didn't happen in this case, so the rig got away. Thankfully, Shell took control and did it in a superb manner.
The rig is now safely anchored in Kiliuda Bay, where Shell can spend the time to bring it back to sea condition, then move it to a facility where all the necessary repairs can be completed.
To those who have been fighting to stop offshore oil development, I hope you have learned that if this rig survived the massive pressures thrown at it by the Pacific Ocean's most powerful winter storms, it shows we have little to worry about when it comes to having this rig operate in the Arctic.
We have all also learned a lot about Shell's commitment to respecting the needs of those most affected, the people in the region who have developed a rich and dynamic culture. Shell is a big company, which means they have the resources to do it right. The depth of their understanding of the people of Old Harbor shows they aren't too big to listen and to care.
Carl Marrs is the CEO of Old Harbor Native Corporation.
By CARL MARRS