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Coast Guard cutter comes to aid of troubled Shell ship, drilling rig

Jill Burke

Even with 2012 quickly drawing to a close, oil company Royal Dutch Shell is continuing to experience the headaches of unexpected mishaps from its Arctic drilling fleet. On Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it had stationed its cutter Alex Haley about 50 miles south of Kodiak to aid Shell's tug Aiviq and its charge, the unpowered conical drilling unit named Kulluk.

It's the latest in a string of setbacks that have plagued the company's long-pursued operations in the Arctic: drilling exploratory top holes above oil reservoirs in the outer continental shelf below the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off of Alaska's northern coast. Shell's season was hampered by weather delays and equipment problems, but the operation was ultimately was considered a success by the company, which plans to resume exploration next year.

The Aiviq experienced multiple engine failures, according the Coast Guard, which has said it is coordinating its response with Shell. Whether the tug is repaired on site or is assisted back into port is up to Shell, said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer David Mosley.

The Kulluk was enlisted for duty in the Beaufort Sea this fall, while another drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, was dispatched to the Chukchi Sea. Each rig drilled one top hole apiece before the season came to an end. Two private tugs assisting the Noble Discoverer in Seward – the Nanuq and the Guardsman – have been diverted to aid with the Aiviq, Mosley said.

The Discoverer was en route to a shipyard in the Lower 48 when it ran into propulsion problems. Once in Seward, the Coast Guard found other safety concerns it wanted Shell to fix before clearing the ship for release.

Kulluk was also on its way to a winter port down south when its tug's engines broke down -- operating just enough to hold position but not enough to make any progress, Mosley said. Generators on board the tug helped prevent it from drifting, according to Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com