Royal Dutch Shell’s troubled drill rig Kulluk found its way back into deeper waters Sunday night, after nearly a week stranded in shallow waters off of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. By Monday morning, the circular, 266-foot-diameter rig had been towed 30 miles north to the relative shelter of Kiliuda Bay, on the east side of Kodiak Island.
On Monday afternoon, the Kulluk dropped anchor in 115 feet of water, solidifying itself in its new home, at least for a little while. Now, officials hope to evaluate any damage suffered by the unit during its time in the rocky shallows of Sitkalidak.
There were few details of what would happen going forward, but officials at Unified Command -- a conglomeration of state, borough and private agencies overseeing the response to the Kulluk grounding -- said that the rig arrived in Kiliuda Bay at about 10 a.m. Monday, 12 hours after the tow began.
According to Sean Churchfield, incident commander for Shell Alaska, the tow went “pretty much according to plan.” Earlier in the day, the Kulluk had been connected to Shell’s tow vessel Aiviq, the ship hauling the Kulluk when it initially broke loose and began its on-again, off-again journey to shore.
“The information that I have is that the tow line was connected, the Aiviq was pulling steadily, and at (10:10 p.m.) when the (Kulluk) came up was pretty close to the top of the tide line,” Churchfield said.
Steven Russell, state coordinator with the Alaska Department of Conservation, said that people in the command center were “overjoyed” when word came in that the Kulluk was once again refloated.
“I think everybody was yelling, and screaming, and very, very happy,” Russell said of when the Kulluk finally pulled away from shore.
But that was just one small victory in a still-developing situation, as the Kulluk now moves into a phase where it can be evaluated for damage and examined to ensure none of the 150,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of other fluids aboard the Kulluk seep into the water.
“The plan we have at the moment is to bring the Kulluk into safe refuge, and at that point we are looking to deploy the anchor aboard the Kulluk,” Churchfield said Monday morning.
Once that anchor was deployed shortly after noon Monday, three tug vessels were attached to the Kulluk by tow lines for improved stability. A representative at Unified Command in Anchorage said that the Kulluk had deployed its anchor, and not the multiple mooring lines it would utilize if it were drilling. The Aiviq had disconnected from the Kulluk but remained in the area.
Another Shell vessel, the Nanuq, provided infrared imagery during the overnight trip to Kiliuda Bay, since the darkness made it difficult to spot any possible oil sheens resulting from a spill. Russell said there was no indication of a spill during the Kulluk’s northbound trip. Once the daylight arrived, a Coast Guard overflight of the Kulluk also failed to reveal any sheen on the water.
The Nanuq was also standing by, along with several other vessels, including the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley and three other ships.
Among details that still weren’t clear on Monday afternoon was how long the Kulluk would remain in Kiliuda Bay, the method by which the condition of the hull would be assessed -- whether by dive team or submersible -- and where any needed repairs might be performed.
“That is going to be extremely dependent on the outcome of the assessment,” Churchfield said. “But once we have that information we’ll be working the plan forward.”
Also connected to the Kulluk and providing extra stability during the tow was the Crowley-operated tow vessel Alert, called to assist in the recovery effort. The Unified Command estimated that 730 people were now involved in the response.
Also happening Monday was a shore assessment on Ocean Bay and Sitkalidak Island, where Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler and Russell said that lifeboats from the Kulluk containing fuel had washed up, as well as other possible debris.
No fuel spilled, but political fallout everywhere
In light of the Kulluk fiasco, questions have been mounting over what the future holds for Shell's Arctic explorations, specifically, how the political landscape will look as Shell attempts to move forward.
Despite repeated inquiries from reporters, officials have said little about what Shell's future Arctic prospects will look like, focusing instead on the immediate recovery efforts.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said while there have been no serious injuries and no sense of imminent environmental damage, Shell's hasn't dodged the “political fallout” the incident has caused.
Both Murkowski -- who serves as the top Republican on the senate energy committee -- and Sen. Mark Begich have made mention of formal inquiries on the Kulluk tow fiasco. Which committees would conduct those inquiries and when are still unclear, though Murkowski noted that “we know that's coming.”
It's a step toward getting answers to questions that many with stakes in Arctic drilling are pressing for -- or criticizing. Environmental groups, including the National Resource Defense Council, have called on the Obama Administration to halt future Arctic drilling permits.
Murkowski noted there are concerns over permits anytime, but that the political fallout of an event like the Kulluk grounding makes it “just that much more difficult.”
Murkowski expressed trepidation that incidents like the Kulluk tow could scare politicians into locking up the Arctic from further exploration.
Whether or not it will fuel debate on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unclear. As Alaska Dispatch reported in September, oil development in ANWR could pose fewer risks than venturing offshore in the Arctic. But opening the refuge to oil exploration has long been controversial. And Murkowski doesn't expect President Obama to change his position on opening ANWR -- a project that has often been described as a “holy grail” for environmental advocates -- but noted that when it comes to oil drilling, looking onshore is a safe bet.
“We have demonstrated capabilities to extract on-shore with a pretty good track record,” she said. “(Off-shore drilling) is a difficult business with different factors at play -- weighing what's known versus unknown -- we simply know more about our capabilities on shore.”
More about what's next for Shell's Arctic drilling program might be known after the Coast Guard completes its investigation into the grounding of the Kulluk and the chain of events leading up to it. But officials have given no timeline for when that investigation might be completed.