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Shell drilling rig grounds off Kodiak Island after towlines fail for 5th time

Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig, re-secured to two ships with towlines early Monday, grounded around 9 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 Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s 18-person crew on Saturday for their own safety…

By LISA DEMER — [email protected]

Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig, re-secured to two ships with towlines early Monday, grounded around 9 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.

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., the second tow ship, the borrowed Alert, was directed to lose its towline to avoid danger to the nine crew members aboard, according to the command team managing the crisis, which includes Shell, 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.

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 written statement sent around 8:30 p.m. The grounding is 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.

The crew had been trying to get the Kulluk to safe harbor on Kodiak Island but the storm, with huge swells and fierce winds, proved too much, Montoya said.

In a statement issued around 6 a.m. Monday, it was being held by towlines and was about 19 miles south of Kodiak.

“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.

As of late Monday afternoon, 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.

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.

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 the Kulluk lost both lines.

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.

“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 the Frontier Building, 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 now has four vessels on scene, and the Coast Guard brought in a cutter, the Alex Haley, the buoy tender Spar, as well as helicopters. On Monday, the Coast Guard flew a small crew to the evacuated Kulluk to inspect the towlines but they reportedly didn’t stay on long.

The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor 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.

Reach Lisa Demer at [email protected] or 257-4390.

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