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Builder of tug that failed Shell's Kulluk has moneyed Alaska ties

Powerful Edison Chouest Offshore, a large and dominant shipbuilding company on the nation's Gulf coast, has become increasingly influential in Alaska, too. It's built specially designed tugs worth hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Royal Dutch Shell's Arctic drilling program in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

In support of its ambitions, the company has sunk big money into politics, too, with sizeable campaign donations to politicians able to influence marine policy, defense and shipping matters – including Alaska's three congressmen.

The company's new 324-foot tug Aiviq was towing Shell's conical drilling unit Kulluk from Dutch Harbor to Seattle in late December when angry, stormy seas turned the voyage perilous. The Aiviq's engines failed and with waves topping 30 feet, it struggled merely to maintain its position. A second Edison Chouest tug, the 301-foot Nanuq, built in 2007, was sent in to help. Together, both vessels made progress while the Aiviq's seamen worked to repair the engines. But an inability to keep the tow lines intact ultimately forced the crew to abandon the Kulluk and let it run aground. Saving the crews was deemed more important than trying to wrangle with an odd-shaped, unpowered rig in the middle of a brutal winter ocean storm, something Shell and the Coast Guard has reminded the public daily since the rig fetched up on Sitkalidak Island beside Kodiak.

Contributing to Alaska congressmen

Since 2010, family members of the company with humble beginnings that is now believed to be worth billions, have spent at least $170,000 in campaign donations to Alaska's Congressional delegation.

• U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has already landed more than $30,000 from Chouest for his 2014 re-election bid.

• Sen. Lisa Murkowski landed $40,800 from the company for her 2010 re-election efforts.

• Rep. Don Young pulled in $32,000 during the same election cycle – and for 2012, the family supported him with $66,400 in donations.

Those are the minimum amounts only from donors with the last name of Chouest, and they don't include what the company spent on lobbying. Edison Chouest also owns several other companies that may have donated separately.

As of Friday afternoon, Murkowski was the only one of the three to have even mentioned the Kulluk incident on congressional websites, and Murkowski only noted she was "closely monitoring the developing situation," without mentioning Edison Chouest. Gov. Sean Parnell hadn't yet mentioned the Kulluk incident on his site, either.

Edison Chouest typically contributes healthy amounts to Louisiana politicians, national Republican committees, presidential campaigns, and other members of Congress connected to the marine and energy sectors, according to the website Influence Explorer and the political news outlet Roll Call. In 2011, Roll Call reported that Edison Chouest President Gary Chouest had ties to multiple companies that funded a defense fund for Young, who at the time was under federal investigation.

Company started small in 1960

Chouest's father, Edison Chouest, founded the company in 1960. The Gulf of Mexico shrimper began by purchasing a 65-foot utility vessel that was contracted to service a Humble Oil Company rig in the gulf. In 1974, the company built North American Shipbuilding in Larose, La. The yard eventually expanded to build offshore specialty vessels and built ships for the United States military and government.

A second shipyard — North American Fabricators — was opened in Houma, La., in 1996. The Chouest family recently completed two other shipyards — Gulfship in Gulfport, Miss., and Navship, in Navegantes, Brazil.

All together, Edison has built more than 200 offshore service and supply vessels, with 13 new ships delivered last year. The privately held company, with more than 7,000 employees, is estimated to be worth around $5 billion and is considered the biggest shipbuilder along the Gulf Coast.

With expertise servicing the energy industry, Chouest has a clear stake in oil exploration and production – as well as military contracts. Many of Alaska's pressing arctic dilemmas and opportunities intersect with those sectors, including whether the U.S. Coast Guard should expand its presence in the Arctic with new ice breakers as well as the development of ice-class support vessels for offshore oil exploration and spill response.

Although Edison Chouest is listed among the official incident commanders in the spill response plans filed in Alaska for the Aiviq and the Nanuq, it has been visibly absent from the command structure since the Kulluk ran aground.

On Thursday, Mike Lutz, a public information officer with the U.S. Coast Guard working at the Unified Command in Anchorage, said the company's tugs and its expertise were still key to the overall operation, but more "assets" instead of official decision makers were what was most urgently needed. Lutz said the Nanuq and the Aiviq were still in Alaska and likely to assist in a salvage effort, provided repairs to the Aiviq were completed in time. On Friday, both vessels were docked in Kodiak at the Fisherman's Terminal, busy with activity and under a security watch.

Engine failures a mystery

Precisely why the Aiviq's four engines failed in succession has yet to be answered, although some have suspected fouled fuel. Tow-line failures have been attributed to the powerfully tumultuous winter seas. The incident is undoubtedly a blow to Edison Chouest, which has built a reputation on creating custom-built ships designed to meet offshore needs. The Aiviq, a $200 million, 360-foot ice-breaking tug capable of doubling as an oil spill response vessel, has been touted as a crown jewel.

"It will be the world's largest and most powerful anchor-handling icebreaker," Chouest told the Houston Chronicle in Sept. 2011.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com