Coast Guard says Shell reckless in rig grounding off Alaska coast

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

A disregard for the risk, possible negligence, inexperience and equipment problems led to the grounding of a Shell drilling rig in a winter storm off the Alaska coast, according to the Coast Guard.

The 2012 grounding was among a series of mistakes and problems that have blocked Shell’s efforts to explore for oil in the Arctic waters off Alaska. The drilling rig Kulluk grounded during a disastrous attempt to tow it more than 1,700 nautical miles across the Gulf of Alaska to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance.

The Coast Guard investigation found that Shell decided to launch the ambitious winter operation in part to avoid paying millions of dollars in property taxes to the state of Alaska. Shell believed it would be liable for the tax if the vessel were still in Alaska waters on Jan.1.

The Coast Guard investigators concluded the most significant cause of the accident was poor assessment and management of the risks involved with launching the winter tow operation in the Alaskan seas, according to a report released Thursday.

The Coast Guard report said Shell’s towing plan was inadequate, including its reliance on a single towing vessel when severe weather was anticipated. The crew of the towing vessel, the Aiviq, lacked enough experience in Gulf of Alaska waters and the Aiviq had "mechanical issues and design deficiencies," according to the Coast Guard investigation.

The Aiviq was a vessel custom built and operated by Shell by Edison Chouest Offshore. The investigation found evidence that Edison Chouest broke the law by failing to report previous problems with vessel to the Coast Guard. The report also said there is evidence of negligence by the Aiviq’s master, chief engineer and third mate in operating the vessel.

The Coast Guard plans to further investigate the potential violations.

Spokespeople for Shell and Edison Chouest did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

The investigation indicated crew members knew of potential problems. The report cited an email the Aiviq’s master sent the Kulluk’s tow master on Dec. 22.

"To be blunt I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing guarantees an ass kicking," the email stated.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, a critic of Arctic drilling, released a written statement blasting Shell.

"This report shows that Shell ran through every single safety and common sense red light in moving this rig because of financial considerations," Markey said. "This kind of behavior should raise major red flags for any future Arctic drilling plans," 

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said he remains a supporter of Arctic oil and gas development.

"The Coast Guard’s investigation and recommendations here will help guide that development and gives me greater confidence about the role the Arctic will play in Alaska’s future," Begich said.

By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau