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