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NTSB blames Shell for wreck of oil drilling ship Kulluk in Gulf of Alaska

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Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 23.27.03By Joel Connelly: 28 May 2015

The National Transportation Safety Board blames the 2012 grounding and wreck of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk on the oil giant’s “inadequate assessment of the risk” of towing it across the Gulf of Alaska in a winter storm.

“No single error or mechanical failure led to this accident,” the NTSB said in findings released this month. “Rather, shortcomings in the design of a plan with an insufficient margin of safety allowed the accident to take place.

“The plan was created to move the (conical drilling unit) at a time of year with a known likelihood of severe weather conditions for reasons unrelated to operational safety.”

The Kulluk broke its tow lines, an effort to reattach failed and the drilling ship went aground Dec. 31, 2012, on uninhabited Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak.

The Kulluk, bound for a Seattle shipyard, sustained irreparable damaged.  It has been replaced in this year’s drilling effort by the Polar Pioneer, currently berthed — against wishes of city, county and state agencies — at Terminal 5 in the Port of Seattle.

Shell has not gone back to the Arctic since its debacle-filled 2012 drilling effort.  It completed just the top portion of one well in the Chukchi Sea before drilling rigs were forced to retreat before moving pack ice.

The oil giant hopes to use the Polar Pioneer and Noble Discoverer, a scarred veteran of the 2012 drilling effort, to drill as many as six wells during the brief season in summer and early fall in which the Chukchi Sea is ice free.

The saga of the Kulluk became subject of a New York Times Magazine piece, as well as multiple investigations.

The U.S. Coast Guard, last year, faulted Shell and its subcontractor for choosing to tow the Kulluk across the “notoriously treacherous” Gulf of Alaska, notorious for experiencing some of the world’s worst late fall/early winter storm.

It hinted that the Kulluk was seeking to get out of Alaska waters to avoid a state tax bill that would have kicked in on Jan. 1, 2013.

A subcontractor, Edison Chouest, began towing the Kulluk and its support vessel, the Alviq, out of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on Dec. 21, 2012.  On dEC. 27, battered by storms near Kodiak Island, Kulluk’s tow line broke.  The Aviq’s engines failed.

The Coast Guard evacuated almost all of the Kulluk’s crew, tried to connect a new tow line and furnished Aviq with spare parts.

The briefly reattached tow line broke again.  The Kulluk crunched onto Sitkalidak just three hours and 12 minutes before the end of 2012.

Shell has pledged better planning and much tighter oversight of its contractors.  (A Coast Guard inspection of the Noble Discoverer, after it left the Arctic, resulted in eight felony convictions and $12.2 million in fines.)

The NTSB was stinging in its words:

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probably cause of the grounding of the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk was Shell’s inadequate assessment of the risk for its planned tow of the Kulluk, resulting in implementation of a tow plan insufficient to mitigate that risk.”

The 2015 Shell drilling plan has been approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an arm of the U.S. Interior Department.

It must still pass muster with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, another Interior Department agency.


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