Shell Runs Its Arctic Drilling Rig Aground; Coast Guard Prepares For ‘Possible Spill-Response’

Photo: Jon Klingenberg / US Coast Guard

by Kiley Kroh

It appears 2013 will begin much like 2012 ended for Shell’s Arctic Ocean drilling efforts – with yet another mishap.

After several failed attempts to secure the equipment in harsh weather, Shell’s enormous Kulluk drilling rig ran aground near Kodiak Island, Alaska late Monday night. With approximately 143,000 gallons of fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricating oil and hydraulic fluid on board, the Coast Guard is now preparing for the “salvage and possible spill-response phase of this event.” Two Coast Guard flyovers on Tuesday did not detect any leakage but a severe winter storm – with winds up to 70 mph and waves as high as 50 feet – has prevented crews from conducting a full assessment of the damage.

After an initial exploratory drilling season plagued with technical failures, struggles with Mother Nature, and numerous warnings about the lack of preparedness to operate in the region, the oil company’s woes have only continued. In November, the challenging and unpredictable Arctic conditions created a logistical nightmare as Shell struggled to get the Kulluk out of the Beaufort Sea as winter sea ice encroached.

As the Anchorage Daily News reports, the rig was headed to Seattle for maintenance last week when a mechanical failure in the tow vessel halted its progress and left “crews struggling against worsening weather and a mobile drilling unit that was unmanned with no propulsion capability of its own.” Huge winds and fierce swells thwarted numerous attempts to reattach tow lines and bring the rig to safety. Once grounding appeared inevitable, crews worked to steer the vessel to an area where it would have the least environmental impact.

Fortunately for Shell, this latest incident occurred in close proximity to the Coast Guard station in Kodiak, which enabled the helicopter rescue of 18 crew members on Saturday in extremely challenging conditions. The station also happens to be the closest permanent Coast Guard facility to where the oil company intends to use the Kulluk when they resume drilling this summer – over 1,000 miles away or 3 to 4 hours by plane in ideal conditions.

Like each of the incidents before it, the ongoing crisis with the Kulluk underscores the numerous challenges presented by operating in the Arctic, as well as the industry’s lack of preparedness to anticipate and overcome them. Drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean carries an enormous amount of risk – a fact pointed out not just by environmentalists but a major insurance company, bank, legislative body, and even a fellow oil major among others.

As Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) emphasized in a statement released Tuesday, “Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies … Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”

Problems with logistics, infrastructure, and scientific knowledge only add to a bigger problem: that the Arctic is already being battered by accelerating climate change. In the summer of 2012, the region lost a mass of ice the size of Canada and Texas combined.

Shell’s Arctic endeavor has been riddled with problems from the outset. As the company looks toward a full drilling season in 2013, there are far more questions than answers and far more mishaps than successes.

Watch a video of Shell’s stranded rig:

Coast Guard overflight of Kulluk aground from anchoragedailynews on Vimeo.

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director for Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress

15 Responses to Shell Runs Its Arctic Drilling Rig Aground; Coast Guard Prepares For ‘Possible Spill-Response’

  1. Denny Waller says:

    Shell runs its rig aground?

    The rig ran aground after it was cut loose in high seas.

    Poorly worded headlines receive much criticism on this site.

  2. Joe Romm says:

    The headline is an accurate description of what happened. That usage of “runs” is pretty standard.

  3. Zimzone says:

    The CEO of each major oil company should be required to spend at least a week on this rig in high seas, just to ‘get a feel’ for what it’s like in an arctic environment.

  4. Brooks Bridges says:

    I recall reading another article saying it was guided/towed to the area because it was considered a better place to run aground than others.

    The article also said the fuel tanks were centrally located and protected.

  5. Leif says:

    So who gets to foot the Coast Guard mobilization bill? Hold Shell accountable for every dime. Stop profits from the pollution of the commons. Socially enabled capitalism on every front is a failed paradigm.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    I’m not bringing that up as an archeological preservation issue, though it could be, but instead to illustrate that if the Kulluk leaks into Ocean Bay, it would damage a potentially liveable habitat.

    (Echoes of people saying they’d move to Canada, or Rex Tillerson’s infamous “engineering” quote.) Don’t trash the Arctic particularly if one plans to live there some day.

  7. Timarumaps says:

    In New Zealand – Shell has changed the name of its service stations to “Z”.
    All its TV advertising now revolves around the purchase of petrol or gas at “Z” service stations.
    Is there a message here?

  8. Clifford says:

    I was not happy with the conflation of Arctic Ocean drilling in the first paragraph with the location of the rig being run aground on Kodiak Island. The map I keep beside my computer shows Kodiak Island as being just southeast of the Arctic peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska. While the author never explicitly said the island was in the Arctic ocean, he/sheled the uninformed reader into making that association. There is enough real science showing enough real problems without reporters trying to manipulate perception by less than honest means. This article is very poor, misleading journalism that makes it much more difficult for me to take seriously anything else published at or by this site. Too bad.

  9. john c. wilson says:

    There is no risk going forward that the Arctic will become a productive oilfield. None at all. There never was a risk. The only question is how much financial loss and environmental destruction has to occur before the pipedreams are allowed to slumber.

  10. Aussie John says:

    Citizens of the world should send a message to Shell about their exploitation of the thawing Arctic; avoid buying Shell products whenever possible!
    A groundswell of action as suggested above may have the desired commercial effect.

  11. Paul Klinkman says:

    Steel hulls aren’t designed to be pounded against underwater rock formations once every 15 seconds for many days on end by 50 foot waves. The steel dents, it cracks and eventually little pieces of steel snap off. Then the waves pound the second hull beneath the first hull against the same rocks, and the same degradation happens. Eventually the hull loses containment. The vessel sinks and is ground up by more wave action.

    Shell Oil is going to figure all of this out the hard way. This stuff happens in Arctic weather conditions.

  12. Eq4bits says:

    The Kulluk is 30 years old and was recently ‘overhauled’ (after Shell bought it from Noble) in Seattle (ignoring most regulations and specs) and only left the shipyard in July/August 2012 and needed maintenance already? Why only the one tow line when an additional safety line is required?

  13. Eq4bits says:

    This is simply Shell Oil trying to collect the insurance for a bad purchase/business decision. The Kulluk has killed before, they’re lucky no one has been killed (yet) this go round.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No doubt they can write it all off and send the bill to the taxpayer patsies.

  15. Brian says:

    Well said, Leif.