Royal Dutch Shell's multibillion-dollar hopes for smooth Arctic offshore drilling have hit some significant speedbumps along the way. Those include numerous problems with several of its drilling and response vessels, including the drillship Noble Discoverer -- which was forced to stay in port in December thanks to safety and pollution control issues -- and its planned oil-spill response vessel, the Arctic Challenger. A containment dome intended to contain a spill in the event of an undersea blowout was "crushed like a beer can" during testing, preventing the ship from traveling north with the rest of the Shell fleet in 2012.
But no issue thus far has been quite as dramatic -- or as damaging -- as the grounding of the Kulluk, Shell's 266-foot offshore drill unit.
Here's the quick and dirty: the Kulluk left port in Dutch Harbor in late December, hauled by the vessel Aiviq and destined for port in Washington state for wintertime repairs and maintenance. On Dec. 27, the Aiviq lost power to several of its engines in high seas in the Gulf of Alaska, and eventually lost its connection to the unpowered Kulluk, casting it adrift amid a subtropical cyclone that swept in. Despite repeated attempts by Shell and the Coast Guard to re-establish a tow, the Kulluk found itself grounded on New Year's Eve on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island, just south of the island of Kodiak.
On Jan. 6, the Kulluk was finally refloated and transported 30 miles north to the relative shelter of Kiliuda Bay on that latter island, and was awaiting inspection for any damage to its thick, steel, ice-capable hull. But regardless of the damage to the rig, the damage to Shell's Arctic aspirations was already clear, with potential congressional inquiries and increased scrutiny on the company going forward.