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Rig Still Grounded in Alaska as Arctic Drilling Questioned

On Friday the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command was planning "numerous air operations and overflights" of the Kulluk oil rig, which has been grounded off Sitkalidak Island in Alaska since Dec. 31.

In addition, a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter was expected to deliver a team of 12 salvage personnel to the Kulluk to further assess the rig in support of recovery operations. The Kulluk rig is owned by Royal Dutch Shell plc. The drillship was being towed in heavy seas from Alaska to Seattle when it broke loose from its tow vessel and ran aground last Monday.

Five salvage experts boarded the grounded drilling unit Kulluk last Wednesday on the southeast shoreline of Sitkalidak Island to conduct a structural assessment to be used in salvage plans. Efforts to place a team onboard the rig to conduct the assessment had been put on hold due to severe weather conditions earlier in the week. Calmer conditions Wednesday created a window that enabled the assessment to take place.

Smit Salvage is leading salvage operations. Smit has assisted in hundreds of operations worldwide, including the Selendang Ayu salvage that took place off the coast of Western Unalaska in 2004. It also assisted in the Costa Concordia salvage off the coast of Italy in 2012.

Shell wrapped up its Alaska offshore drilling program for 2012 at the end of October (see NGI, Nov. 5, 2012; Oct. 8, 2012).

Under its federal permits, Shell was given permission to drill to only 1,400 feet into the Beaufort and Chukchi seabeds, which is a few thousand feet short of oil and gas deposits. Neither well is finished but the reserves could be tapped in 2013, according to the producer. It was the first time in more than 20 years that a producer had been given permission to drill in Alaska's offshore.

However, the grounding of Kulluk has cast a shadow on Shell's plans in Alaska, and environmentalists have seized on the incident as an example of all that can go wrong in Arctic seas.

"As we have been shown again and again, Alaska's seas are unforgiving. To avoid accidents, careful preparation and planning are clearly needed," said environmental group Oceana's Susan Murray, deputy vice president for the Pacific. "We are fortunate that this latest incident happened close to 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.

"The area in which the Kulluk grounded is critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions and threatened sea otters; and there are important fisheries in the area that help provide livelihoods for Alaskans and support our economy.

"This grounding should serve as the tipping point to show our government that we are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean."

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) praised the work of the USCG and other responders to the grounding. "The extreme winter weather and high seas in the Gulf of Alaska and subsequent grounding of the Kulluk is a horrible situation for any vessel. The heroism displayed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Shell personnel and other responders can't be overstated," she said.

USCG Capt. Paul Mehler said during a news conference early last week that there was no release of any product from the drillship, which he said was carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. The USCG conducted a flyover of the grounding site Tuesday morning.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who is the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Tuesday that the incident casts doubt on the energy industry's ability to ply the Arctic environment for oil and gas.

"Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies," Markey said. "It's clear from multiple incidents that oil companies cannot currently drill safely in the foreboding conditions of the Arctic, and drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment."

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