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Shell drill rig grounds off Kodiak Island after towline failures

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 31, 2012

Note: We've posted an updated story on the grounding of the Kulluk here.


Update: 2:35 p.m.:

Two flights over the grounded Shell drilling rig Kulluk on Tuesday found no sign of a hull breach or fuel spill, the U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday.

"The Kulluk herself seems to be stable," Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler said at a briefing Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage. "In other words, it is not moving. Aground but not moving."

A spokesman for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said there's been no indication of damage to the environment or wildlife in the area.

"The Kulluk, though, still presents a significant threat to Ocean Bay and the surrounding areas," said the DEC's Steve Russell.

The vessel is grounded on a remote stretch of coastline on Sitkalidak Island, between the north edge of Ocean Bay and Partition Cove, and just off southern Kodiak Island.

The area is being pounded by severe weather, which has made response difficult, officials said.

"We've had seas close to 50 (feet). This has been a truly challenging response for everyone involved," Mehler said.

Shell Operations Manager Sean Churchfield said the plan is to put people on board to Kulluk for a better assessment of the situation when it's safe to do so. After the assessment is made, the unified command - involving Shell and agencies - will develop a plan to salvage the vessel, he said.

The Kulluk, he said, "is upright, rocking with a slow motion, and stable."

"There will be an investigation into the cause of this incident once we have the situation under control. There is still a lot of work to be done to bring this to a safe conclusion."

-- David Hulen, ADN

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Read more here: is a developing story. We'll be updating through the afternoon.

Update, 10:25 a.m.:

The state Department of Environmental Conservation provided details about the area of the Kulluk grounding and the fuel aboard the rig in a situation report e-mailed at 2:42 a.m. Tuesday.

The staging area for the response is at the city of Kodiak harbor, the DEC said. A Coast Guard crew that flew over the site, 500 feet from shore between Ocean Bay and Partition Cove, around midnight didn't see any sign of pollution. Kulluk was carrying 138,000 gallons of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel, 1,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricants, the DEC said.

The shore area includes salmon streams. Harbor seals are found in nearby MacDonald Lagoon. Steller's eiders, listed under the Endangered Species Act, may be present near the shore. Partition Cove is within the critical habitat area for both Southwest sea otters and Steller sea lions, which are listed under the act, according to the DEC report.

The coordinates of the grounding site are Latitude 57.01.900N and Longitude 153.06.700W, the DEC said.

The DEC's next update was planned for 2 p.m. Tuesday.


Update, 10 a.m.:

Severe weather around Kodiak Island is continuing to impede operations involving the grounded Kulluk drilling rig, the unified command team managing the crisis said in a statement around 9 a.m. Tuesday

The safety of crews remains the top priority but also high on the list is an effort to assess the condition of the Kulluk. Crews have not been able to do that yet, the team said. A Coast Guard crew initially flew over the scene Monday night and more flights are planned Tuesday. The command group includes Royal Dutch Shell, its contractors, the Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and others who are working together to resolve the situation. It's also working with local and tribal groups.

The latest statement provides additional detail on the location of the Kulluk. It's on the southeast shoreline of Sitkalidak Island between the north edge of Ocean Bay and Partition Cove, the command group said. The shoreline is mixed sand and gravel beaches.

The command team has posted its written statements at

Meanwhile, as a result of the grounding, environmentalists are calling for a review or even a halt of Shell's controversial drilling program offshore in the Alaska Arctic.

Rick Steiner, a former professor with the University of Alaska who is now an environmental consultant through Oasis Earth, has been raising questions for weeks about the lack of emergency towing resources along Shell's route, including corresponding directly with the Coast Guard on the matter.

There is a lot to learn about this cascade of failures that put the Kulluk on the rocks," Steiner said in an e-mail early Tuesday. It appears "the rig was not adequately equipped for heavy weather towing, they should have called the Alert sooner, and tried to shelter sooner. Clearly Shell should have thought through contingencies for a loss of tow in heavy weather, and they didn't. The weather encountered is not extreme and unexpected in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter - it's just winter. This doesn't inspire confidence in their safety and contingency planning capability."

Michael LeVine, the Juneau-based senior counsel for Oceana, said it's lucky the grounding happened near the Coast Guard station in Kodiak.

"If this had happened in the Arctic Ocean, Shell could have been on its own, 1,000 miles from the help it needed," LeVine said in an e-mail. "Shell has not been able to conduct any phase of its operations without substantial problems. From construction of its response barge to complying with air and water protections to transit, Shell's season has been plagued with problems, missteps, and near disasters."

The area of the grounding includes critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions, he wrote. Shell and regulators must explain why certain choices were made.


Earlier story:

Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drilling rig, re-secured to two vessels with towlines early Monday, grounded at 8:48 p.m. in rocky water off the southern coast of Kodiak Island during a pounding Gulf of Alaska winter storm, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The vessel grounded off Sitkalidak Island, at the northern end of Ocean Bay, officials said.

A command team that includes Shell briefed reporters on the disaster with the Kulluk late Monday night.

It broke loose from a Shell-contracted ship, the Aiviq, around 4:40 p.m. Monday. Then around 8:15 p.m., with the grounding imminent, the second tow boat, a borrowed tug named the Alert, was directed to lose its tow line to avoid danger to the nine crew members aboard, according to the command team managing the crisis, which also includes the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska and contractors.

No one was hurt, the Coast Guard said.

The command team numbers about 250 people and most are now based at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown because the operation was running out of room at Shell's headquarters in Alaska, the Midtown Frontier Building.

The rig, with a draft of 35 to 40 feet, grounded in water 32 to 48 feet, the command team said early Tuesday.

In a written statement issued around 6 a.m. Monday, the command team said the Kulluk was being held by towlines and was about 19 miles south of Kodiak.

When the Kulluk was cut loose from its final towline, it was four miles from land toward the south end of Kodiak Island, according to a later statement the command team sent out at around 8:30 p.m.

The grounding was the worst development yet in a crisis that began Thursday night when the $290 million, 266-foot-diameter Kulluk first lost a towline after the mechanical failure of a shackle used to connect it to the Aiviq.

Crews struggled against worsening weather and a mobile drilling unit that was unmanned with no propulsion capability of its own. The Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk's 18-person crew on Saturday for their own safety as the floating rig bobbed in giant swells in the Gulf of Alaska. After that, there was no way for the Kulluk to drop anchor and avoid grounding, said Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya.

"Once the crew of the Kulluk were evacuated, with weather conditions, we actually didn't consider it safe to put a crew back on to work with the anchor chain," Montoya said. On Monday, the Coast Guard flew a small crew to the evacuated Kulluk to inspect the towlines but they didn't stay on long.

Late the afternoon, the crew was trying to get the Kulluk to safe harbor on Kodiak Island but the storm, with huge swells and fierce winds, proved too much, he said.

"The safety of personnel and the environment remain the top priority," the command team said in the 8:30 p.m. statement announcing that the Kulluk was again adrift. "Difficult weather conditions are anticipated to continue throughout the day. Unified Command is considering all options."

The statement did not specify options.

"This is an evolving situation," the statement said. "More information will be released as it becomes available."

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning Monday for the seas around Kodiak and said the marine conditions were hazardous. The forecast was for 36 foot seas, winds topping 60 mph and rain. But the rough seas were expected to ease by Tuesday.

At first light Tuesday, the Coast Guard planned to send a helicopter with a salvage crew aboard to examine the grounded Kulluk.

Susan Childs, Shell's incident commander Monday night and the company's "venture support integrator" for Alaska, said it was too early to know about damage to the rig.

"So it just happened. It's dark. No one has seen it," Childs said. Shell first must assess how to salvage and transport the rig, then "fix whatever's wrong with it," she said.

The Kulluk was carrying about 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid.

"We are now entering into the salvage and possible spill response phase of this event," Alan Wien of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said at the late night briefing.

There's no evidence yet of any spill, he said.

Childs as well as Garth Pulkkinen, Alaska operations manager for Shell drilling contractor Noble Corporation, praised the Coast Guard for its work, including the helicopter rescue of the Noble crew. Pulkkinen said it was "executed flawlessly."

He spoke to the crew members.

"The weather is terrible now. The weather was terrible then. So there was a great deal of vessel movement," he said. "'I'm sure they had a pretty interesting ride up in the basket. But very grateful."

Early Monday morning after a night adrift for the Kulluk, crews tethered it to the Shell-contracted Aiviq, a massive ship 360 feet long, as well as the Alert, a 140-foot Crowley Marine Services tug normally under contract to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. The Alert was diverted from its work as part of Alyeska's five-tug oil spill prevention and response fleet escorting oil tankers in Prince William Sound but the other tugs can handle the duties with no reduction in tanker traffic, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said.

At one point Monday, the unified command team planned to let the vessels wait out the incoming winter storm off the southern coast of Kodiak Island rather than attempt a move to a protected harbor that would be risky in severe weather, said Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosely.

Since the crisis began Thursday, the Kulluk has lost towlines to various ships at least five times, including on Sunday when it broke free of two ships, the Aiviq and another Shell-contracted vessel, the Nanuq. The $200 million Aiviq early Friday lost power to all four engines, which then were repaired and fully restarted by Saturday. The Aiviq was specifically built for Shell's controversial drilling operations offshore in the Alaska Arctic. It is owned by Edison Chouest of Louisiana.

On Monday, crews were able to use a grappling hook to take up the loose end of a long line that was still attached on the other end to the Kulluk. Another line had been attached as a backup and was floating on a buoy and secured at the other end to the Kulluk. That was not one of the lines that broke on Sunday, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

But within hours, the Kulluk was again adrift.

Shell began exploratory drilling this fall in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas under sharp criticism from environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups. The critics say Shell is ill-prepared for challenging work in harsh conditions, and that government regulators have failed to require the latest and best technologies.

In Shell's case, its unique oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing, and another drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, experienced a series of problems. It dragged anchor in Dutch Harbor, suffered a small fire in its smokestack and was cited by the Coast Guard for safety and pollution control issues.

After news of the grounding broke, Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society said in an e-mailed statement that Shell was lucky no one died.

"The implications of this very troubling incident are clear – Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska's weather and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during transit. Shell's costly drilling experiment in the Arctic Ocean needs to be stopped by the federal government or by Shell itself given the unacceptably high risks it poses to both humans and the environment."

"We've got a pattern of failures," said Carl Wassilie, a Yup'ik Eskimo who coordinates a grass-roots group called Alaska's Big Village Network and helped organize a protest Monday outside Shell's Alaska headquarters. "I'm saying no, there's no way that I can see any feasibility of drilling in the Arctic, especially with the extreme conditions that we're seeing, not only with Mother Nature right now but also just the technical aspects of the failures that we're seeing with the fleet."

Shell responded that it has backup plans that kick in when problems emerge and that the actual drilling operations this year proceeded safely.

"Flawless operations remain the goal," Smith said earlier on Monday. "But being a responsible operator also means putting contingencies in place when operations do not go as planned. We have done that."

That includes calling in other vessels during the Kulluk emergency, he said. Shell had four vessels on scene, and the Coast Guard brought in a cutter, the Alex Haley, the buoy tender Spar, as well as helicopters.

The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor, a staging port for Shell, the afternoon of Dec. 21 under tow by the Aiviq, headed to the Seattle area for off-season maintenance. The weather forecast for the next few days was typical, even a bit tame, for winter along the Aleutian chain and into the Gulf of Alaska: Winds of 17 to 35 mph, seas of 7 to 15 feet.

"Toward Kodiak Island, there was nothing of real significance," said Sam Albanese, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "It was a pretty benign forecast."

But by the afternoon of Dec. 25, the outlook had shifted from a prediction of more gale-force winds to a near storm at sea with winds topping 50 mph, he said.

And that's what hit the Kulluk and the Aiviq last week.

By Saturday night, the winds were near hurricane force, the Coast Guard said.

Still, traffic along the busy shipping lanes through the Gulf of Alaska that connect Asia to North America continued during the heavy seas and storm, the Coast Guard's Mosley said.

"We have ships coming through this area daily," he said.

Over the past week or so, no ship captains alerted the Coast Guard that they were diverting course along the Aleutians or around Kodiak Island to avoid the rough seas take refuge in a safe harbor, he said. Ships typically keep the Coast Guard posted if they detour.

But a ship towing a heavy, conical rig like the Kulluk, with a derrick 160-feet tall, has a far more difficult task than one propelling only itself.

The Kulluk was designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters. It has an ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull to deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.


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