Why did Kulluk leave Dutch Harbor? Essential repairs to be made in Seattle.

Suzanna Caldwell
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
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG photo
The Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
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
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
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
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
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
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
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
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
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
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 Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss 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 exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
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
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
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo

Royal Dutch Shell officials say maintenance was one of the main reasons the Kulluk -- the conical drilling rig that ran aground near Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve -- needed to be moved to Seattle, across the Gulf of Alaska in the middle of winter. Since the Kulluk's grounding, some have posed questions over why the vessel needed to be moved at all, given the predictability of severe winter storms in the region.

The Kulluk -- a crucial piece of Shell's Arctic drilling operation -- ran aground last week after the Aiviq, the Shell-owned tug boat towing the vessel across the Gulf, had multiple engine and tow-line failures in succession. The massive Kulluk -- which has a gross tonnage of almost 56 million pounds and is about the length of a football field -- has no propulsion system of its own. During the rescue operation, several vessels struggled to control the Kulluk in 40-foot seas.

Few specifics are available on what type of maintenance the Royal Dutch Shell-owned conical drilling unit will undergo upon its arrival in Port of Everett, the third-largest container port in Washington state, servicing mainly the oil, gas, gold and aerospace industries. Vigor Marine, the company that performed upgrades on the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer last summer, leases space from the port.

'Punch list'

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said operators made a “punch list” before leaving Dutch Harbor on Dec. 22 of possible improvements and upgrades to be completed before the start of the 2013 drilling season this summer.

Smith declined to elaborate on that list. Other Shell officials also declined to detail what maintenance was needed. Sean Churchfield, Shell operations manager, said the reason the Kulluk was moved in mid-winter to was give Shell “maximum time” to prepare for the 2013 drilling season.

Inquiries to Shell headquarters in Houston were not returned Wednesday afternoon.

Logistical challenges

While Smith wouldn't elaborate on maintenance details, he would elaborate on Shell's reasoning for leaving Dutch Harbor, the busiest fishing port in the United States in terms of total fish brought into port, and famous as the backdrop for the Discovery Channel's “Deadliest Catch.”

Smith said that while Shell would have liked to have stayed in Dutch Harbor to perform maintenance on the Kulluk, that was a challenge logistically. Weather in Unalaska can be unpredictable. Skilled workers have to be flown in to the small Aleutian island community of 4,500 people, and weather delays are typical.

“That doesn't work on a maintenance schedule that needs to be as predictable as possible,” Smith said.

Getting workers on those flights might have been a challenge, too. Flights are usually fully booked well in advance according to city manager Chris Hladick. Fishing season starts in mid-January and the community sees a massive influx of people.

“There's no unemployment in Unalaska,” he said.

Dock space tight

Due to that influx, housing is hard to come by. Hladick said last winter Shell considered bringing a barge to town just to house crew members working on its drilling fleet.

Fishing also limits dock availability. Hladick said Dutch Harbor docks are scheduled “down to the minute” up to two months in advance during the busy fishing season, which runs through the winter.

Given the conical shape of the Kulluk's hull, Shell built a dock in Dutch Harbor specifically for the vessel in 2010. Smith said that dock was built in the hope that more Kulluk maintenance could be completed in Dutch Harbor, but other logistical concerns made that difficult.

“It just doesn't make sense for these rigs at this time,” Smith said.

Hladick said it's been a struggle for the port to try to balance what type of infrastructure it needs. Though geared toward fishing today, there's no reason Dutch Harbor couldn't be focused on oil fields one day.

“(The logistics) just aren't there right now, not that they couldn't be set up in the future,” Hladick said. “People aren't going to pull the trigger on investments in building infrastructure if there's no oil field.”

That was a sentiment Sen. Lisa Murkowski echoed in an interview with Alaska Dispatch Monday. She specifically pointed out that there's no reason a port like Seward, located on the Kenai Peninsula, 1,000 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor, couldn't one day be more of a maritime center. The Noble Discoverer -- which serves as the back-up drill to the Kulluk and has suffered mechanical and permitting problems of its own -- is docked in Seward right now.

“Maybe (Alaska's) come of age where we don't need to rely on Seattle,” Murkowski said. “My hope is Shell is looking critically at that.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com