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A month after grounding, troubled Shell drill rig sits, waits in Alaska bay

Ben Anderson
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th Coast Guard District commander, Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator for the Kulluk mishap, and Sean Churchfield, Shell’s incident commander, discuss the situation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Jan. 1, 2013.
USGS Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield photo
The Arctic Challenger with the newly redesigned and repaired Containment Dome move away from the Port of Bellingham, Wash. on Dec. 12. The challenger had been moored since returning in September 2012 after a catastrophic failure of the first iteration of their containment process.
TJ Guiton photo
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
A night shot of the workers and equipment showing a markedly armored containment dome to replace the one which suffered a catastrophic failure in September 2012 during the initial testing process in calm, predictable conditions in the Salish Sea off of Anacortes, WA. Note the lateral ribs surrounding the upper portion of the dome as well as the outer steel plates to protect the dome from damage and enhance the strength of the structure to the pressures of ocean depths.
TJ Guiton
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
The west end of Sitkalidak Island's shore Ocean Beach, where shoals are visible beneath the waves. Sitkalidak Island is located near Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Ground Truth Trekking
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew evacuates 18 crewmen from Shell Oil's drilling ship Kulluk in 15 to 20-foot seas, 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, on Dec. 29, 2012.
Coast Guard photo
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak overflies the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq tandem towing the mobile drilling unit Kulluk 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The tug Alert from Prince William Sound and the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak are en route to assist.
US Coast Guard photo
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo
Curtis Smith, spokesperson for Shell Oil. June 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The anchor-handling vessel, the Alert, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
US Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell Oil Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby listens to David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, speaking at the Arctic Imperative Summit. August 26, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Royal Dutch Shell has already begun studying land and sea features to determine the best route and depth to place at least 400 miles of pipelines that can carry crude oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline. The company is considering several options across a wide swath of ocean and tundra. This map was created to provide a general idea of the direction those pipelines will take.
Aaron Jansen illustration
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG photo
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo
The Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship, the Kulluk, grounded at remote Sitkalidak Island in Alaska on Jan. 1, 2013.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis footage
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013.
U.S. Coast Guard photo

It seems like just yesterday that the Royal Dutch Shell drill rig Kulluk ran aground on the rocky shore of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, raising concerns of a fuel spill and stirring doubts about the future of Royal Dutch Shell’s ambitions for offshore oil drilling in the Arctic. Now, a month since the rig finally came to shore after frantic efforts to tow it back out to sea in rough seas and stormy weather in late December, it still sits in the relative shelter of Kiliuda Bay, on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, and officials said Thursday that there is no timeline for when the rig might finally be moved.

The round drill rig was towed to Kiliuda Bay in early January, in hopes of evaluating the steel-hulled vessel for damage and determining if it would be safe to tow to its original destination, a shipyard in Washington state, for further repairs. In the bay, divers and remotely-operated vehicles examined the hull. The data from that examination is currently still being analyzed, according to the Unified Command, a cooperative agency comprised of state, Coast Guard and Shell interests that is overseeing the recovery.

Even if it were to get the all-clear to move out of the bay, the Kulluk wouldn’t be going anywhere -- the rig is stuck where it is until the conclusion of the Tanner crab season in the area. In the Southeast district of the Kodiak Island fishery -- the area where the Kulluk sits -- there was still plenty of crab to be caught, said Mark Stichert, a shellfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“There was a quota of 520,000 pounds, and we’re still about 87,000 pounds short,” Strichert said. “This season’s been a little slower than usual.”

Some years, the Tanner crab season off of Kodiak can last for mere days, but some rough weather in recent weeks has meant a sluggish harvest. The season opener was even delayed a day thanks to a gale warning in the area. It wasn’t clear when the quota would be reached, but it likely wouldn’t be too much longer.

“Our best guess, and it's weather-dependent, is that we’ll have it wrapped up sometime this weekend,” Strichert said.

Not that there seems to be any rush to move the Kulluk out of the bay anyway. Officials have been tight-lipped in recent weeks since the hull survey was completed, and a timeline for when -- and how -- the rig could be moved remains elusive.

Kevin Hardy, a spokesman with Unified Command, said that no hull data had yet been reported from the analysis, which was still ongoing. He said that additional tow equipment had been stationed in Kodiak, but couldn’t say whether the equipment was different from any of the other tow material used to haul the Kulluk during the initial tow to Kiliuda Bay.

The only information about the continued integrity of the Kulluk’s hull came in the form of a statement from Unified Command Wednesday morning.

“The UC has received confirmation from naval architects that the damage sustained by the grounding poses no threat to the stability or integrity of the Kulluk while anchored in Kiliuda Bay,” the statement said.

The gist is that the Kulluk is fine to sit in the bay, but it remains unknown if it can safely be moved, and if not, how it can get to the point where it is safe to do so.

So now, even a month after the Kulluk found its way onto the Alaska coast, there remain more questions than answers over the fate of the rig, and Shell’s drilling hopes for 2013.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com