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Efforts intensify to haul drilling rig to safety before next big storm hits Kodiak

US Coast Guard photo

Update, 6 p.m. Monday: 

Violent seas kept the Royal Dutch Shell drilling unit Kulluk stuck in the Gulf of Alaska Monday night, as crews try to figure out how to protect the multi-million dollar vessel.

It's been a tumultuous few days for the Kulluk, which saw itself disconnected from the tug boats charged with moving the vessel from Alaska to the Lower 48 for the winter. Earlier this year, the Kulluk did groundbreaking exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea for Shell.  

The U.S. Coast Guard said in a press release Monday it planned to tow the Kulluk to safe harbor at Port Hobron on the southeast side of Kodiak Island. The same release said the Coast Guard planned to deploy several technicians on board the Kulluk to inspect the tow lines on the drilling unit. The vessel's 18-person crew was evacuated Sunday. No injuries have been reported.

The Kulluk, a $290 million drilling unit, is considered an integral part of Shell's offshore Arctic drilling operation that began this summer.

As the vessel headed to the Lower 48 on Thursday, the tow shackle between the Kulluk 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.

Another ship, the Coast Guard's 282-foot cutter Alex Haley, was dispatched to reconnect the tow line. However, 35-foot seas and 40 mph winds, coupled with the size of the vessels, caused the tow line to disconnect, and the Haley retreated to Kodiak for repairs.

After dispatching yet another ship, the Prince William Sound-based Alert tug, the Kulluk was reconnected to its tow vessels early Monday morning.

According to a joint statement from Shell, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Alert was able to secure the 400-foot line that was previously the tow line used by the Aiviq at 12:45 a.m. Later Monday morning, the Shell tow vessel Aiviq also re-established its connection to the Kulluk about 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island.

Difficult weather is expected in the region for the next several days.

“Unified Command is evaluating all potential options to further secure the vessel until the weather clears,” it said.

Despite a bit of a lull in the weather Monday, with winds calming to 32 mph and seas reduced to 4 feet, the break is not expected to last. Seas are expected to be up to 33 feet by Tuesday, with the potential for 40-foot waves as a large storm system delivers moisture from as far south as California. Satellite imagery shows the bulk of the storm headed right for Kodiak.

“They're in the bulls-eye of the whole thing,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Dan Peterson, who said the weather service is updating the unified command center hourly.

Shell's drilling fleet has been plagued with a string of delays and problems this summer, and the engine failures aboard the Aiviq came just one day after revelations that the company's massive drillship, Noble Discoverer, was delayed for several weeks in Seward after being ordered to stay put for repairs to safety and pollution prevention systems on board.

 

Update, 11 a.m. Monday: 

The Royal Dutch Shell drilling unit Kulluk was reconnected to its tow vessels early Monday morning, hours after high seas left the rig adrift in the Gulf of Alaska.

According to a joint statement from Shell, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the tug boat Alert was able to secure the 400-foot line about 12:45 a.m. Monday.  That was the tow line previously used by the Aiviq.

Later in the morning, the Shell tow vessel Aiviq also re-established its connection to the Kulluk.

Crews wrestled with seas exceeding 25 feet and strong winds in the Gulf of Alaska Sunday when the Aiviq -- a 360-foot tug that had been towing the Kulluk -- suffered multiple engine failures. The Kulluk, considered an integral part of Shell's offshore Arctic drilling operation, was being towed to a Lower 48 port, where it would spend the winter. The Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own.

"The weather on scene is testing the limits of our Coast Guard crews. The professionalism of our air crews and cutter men and women have prevented the situation from deteriorating further" Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander 17th District in Juneau, Alaska, said in a press release.

On Saturday, the Kulluk's 18 crew members were evacuated from the drilling rig. No injuries had been reported as of Sunday night.

The vessels were adrift about 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island. The statement said challenging weather is expected to continue in the region over the next several days.

“Unified Command is evaluating all potential options to further secure the vessel until the weather clears,” the joint statement said.

The issues are just the most recent in a string of holdups and delays with Shell's drilling fleet, and the engine failures aboard the Aiviq came just one day after revelations that the company's massive drillship Noble Discoverer was delayed for several weeks in Seward after being ordered to stay put for repairs to safety and pollution prevention systems on board.

Update, 6 p.m. Sunday: 

Once again, the Coast Guard reports that the lines connecting the Royal Dutch Shell drill unit Kulluk to its tow vessels have separated, leaving responders hoping to re-establish a connection Sunday evening. The Kulluk, which has no propulsion system of its own, had been connected to the Shell tow vessels Aiviq and Nanuq on Sunday morrning, but was again at the mercy of rough seas Sunday afternoon.

Numerous other vessels were on scene, including the tug boat Alert, which arrived earlier in the day.

"The crew is evaluating all options for reconnecting with the Kulluk," the Coast Guard said.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reports that the Aiviq and Nanuq actually lost their tow of the Kulluk at about 2 p.m. on Sunday. The DEC, which is monitoring the incident for potential spills of fuel or other fluids, reported that no spills had currently taking place, but were classifying the situation as a "potential spill."

"A Refueling Plan for the M/V Aiviq is also being developed to replace any contaminated fuel," the DEC said in a status report. "A work group is preparing a Place of Refuge Plan to address the issues associated with towing the drill rig to a sheltered location (Marmot Bay is currently proposed as the potential place of refuge). The issues addressed include sensitive area protection and operational issues associated with anchoring the vessel at that location."

But first, the tow vessels need to reconnect with the Kulluk, which has no propulsion of its own.

The seas were expected to subside a bit beginning Sunday night, dropping to between 14 and 16 feet, with waves up to 23 feet. Another storm was expected to arrive Monday afternoon, bringing with it the potential for waves of almost 30 feet.

Update, 4 p.m. Sunday: 

Despite a tropical cyclone that brought high seas and unseasonably warm temperatures to Southcentral and the Gulf of Alaska, two Royal Dutch Shell ships were able to keep themselves tied fast to a vital offshore drilling unit Kulluk Sunday morning, towing the rig away from Kodiak Island.

Photos released Sunday showed heavy gray clouds over the ships, which were finally able to make progress beginning on Saturday afternoon after 20-foot seas and high winds kept snapping towlines established to the Kulluk, which has no propulsion of its own.

The ship towing the Kulluk, the 360-foot Aiviq, suffered failure in three of its four engines, which Shell Spokesman Curtis Smith said may have been due to contaminated fuel.

The Aiviq was able to restore all four of its engines on Saturday. About 2,000 pounds of repair supplies were delivered to the Aiviq via Coast Guard helicopter.

While the crew aboard the Aiviq was attempting to get the engines up and running again, the rough weather conditions made efforts to evacuate the Kulluk or establish an alternate towing method difficult. The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley had to return to Kodiak after a towline connecting it to the Kulluk broke and became entangled in one of the ship's propellers.

The Coast Guard reported Sunday that the Alex Haley was on its way back to the area to assist the Shell vessels if needed. The 18 crew members aboard the Kulluk were evacuated Saturday afternoon as a precaution.

"The tug boat, Alert, is heading to the scene and is expected to arrive this afternoon," a Coast Guard release said. "The Alert will join the Guardsman as a vessel of opportunity should they be called upon to assist in the tow. There are multiple U.S. Coast Guard assets on scene, and the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley is en route from Kodiak to assist as needed."

Despite initial plans to find safe harbor for the Kulluk and Aiviq, the decision was made Saturday to head further out into the Gulf of Alaska, in hopes of weathering the subtropical cyclone that swept into the area Saturday.

At about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, the Kulluk was about 20 miles south of Kodiak Island.

Update, 5 p.m. Saturday:

The crew of the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk was evacuated Saturday afternoon after the Aiviq -- a 360-foot vessel towing the non-mobile drilling unit -- suffered multiple engine failures on Friday. According to Shell and the Coast Guard, the tug vessel Aiviq had restored all four of its engines by Saturday evening, and was towing the Kulluk south with the help of another Shell ship, the Nanuq.

"As a precautionary measure, the crew aboard the Kulluk was evacuated via coast guard helicopters," Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email. "Even though the rig is secure at the moment, we don’t see value in keeping those workers on board. Now that the crew have been safely evacuated we will accelerate the speed of the southbound tow to create even more margin between the vessels and landfall."

High seas and winds have persisted in the region south of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska where the Aiviq first suffered mechanical difficulty, which Smith said may have resulted from "contaminated fuel," though further investigation would be required to find out the cause of the problem.

The Coast Guard said that they delivered approximately 2,000 pounds of repair supplies to the Aiviq via helicopter on Saturday morning. Shell had requested the evacuation of crew from the Kulluk on Friday, but rough weather conditions prevented that until Saturday.

"The weather on scene is testing the limits of our Coast Guard crews," Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, Alaska district commander, said in a statement. "The professionalism of our air crews and cutter men and women have prevented the situation from deteriorating further."

The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley was able to establish a towline to the Aiviq in order to help maintain control, but lost that connection at about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, thanks to seas that at times reached 35 feet in height and winds that whipped at as much as 40 mph.

Multiple towlines were established and subsequently broken by numerous Coast Guard and Shell vessels during the dicey rescue effort over the course of two days. Continued rough weather in the Gulf of Alaska meant that the numerous vessels weren't out of the woods yet, but moving the Kulluk south and adding to the buffer between it and the south shore of Kodiak Island allowed a little room to breathe by Saturday afternoon.

Smith said that no injuries had been reported.

Original story:

Choppy seas south of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska have hampered efforts to aid the tug vessel Aiviq, which experienced multiple engine failures on Friday while towing the Royal Dutch Shell drilling unit Kulluk. By Saturday morning, two engines aboard the Aiviq were online after delivery of repair supplies by Coast Guard helicopter.

The Kulluk, which has no propulsion system of its own, is an integral part of Shell's offshore Arctic drilling operation that got under way this summer. The vessel was being towed to a port in the Lower 48, its home for the winter.

Plans to evacuate non-essential personnel from the Kulluk were still on hold as of about 9:15 a.m. Saturday. Despite a reported plan to evacuate members of the 18-person crew, high seas and winds made that impossible overnight. The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley had been deployed Friday to assist the Aiviq and Kulluk, and Anchorage Coast Guard commander Capt. Paul Mehler said in a release that another cutter was on the way to the area south of Kodiak.

"Our main priority remains the safety of all crews involved in this situation," Mehler said.  "To help ensure safety of all involved, we have directed multiple Coast Guard assets to the area, including the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory, our Kodiak based HC-130's and Jayhawk helicopter aircrews."

One engine was working on the Aiviq prior to the second engine coming online Saturday. According to the National Weather Service, 20-foot seas and high winds were predicted in the area for much of the rest of the day.

Another Shell vessel, the 301-foot oil-spill response ship Nanuq, has also arrived at the scene and is hoping to assist in towing the Kulluk.

The issues are just the most recent in a string of holdups and delays with Shell's drilling fleet, and the engine failures aboard the Aiviq came just one day after revelations that the company's massive drillship Noble Discoverer was delayed for several weeks in Seward after being ordered to stay put for repairs to safety and pollution prevention systems on board.

Ben Anderson contributed to this report. Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.con. Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com