Five salvage experts boarded the grounded drilling unit Kulluk Wednesday morning on the southeast shoreline of Sitkalidak Island, AK, to conduct a structural assessment to be used in salvage plans being developed by the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command.

The five-member team was lowered to Royal Dutch Shell plc’s Kulluk by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter for the assessment, which lasted about three hours. The Coast Guard helicopter and crew also delivered a state-owned emergency towing system to the Kulluk, which will be used during salvage operations.

The drillship was being towed in heavy seas from Alaska to Seattle when it broke loose from its tow vessel and ran aground at about 9 p.m. local time Monday (see Daily GPI, Jan. 3).

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 Daily GPI, Nov. 1, 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 Coast Guard 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.

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