Last year ended badly for the two drill rigs used by Shell Oil for its Arctic operations. A Coast Guard inspection in late November revealed significant problems with safety and pollution prevention equipment aboard the drillship Noble Discoverer. More recently—and more dramatically—a powerful storm in the North Pacific drove Shell’s drilling unit Kulluk aground off the coast of Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, the Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s crew before the drilling unit grounded and so far, there are have been no serious injuries. The operation to salvage the Kulluk is ongoing, and we hope that all responders and salvors stay safe.
The Kulluk’s problems began on Thursday, December 27 when heavy seas snapped the towline between the Kulluk and Shell’s tug, the Aiviq. Crews managed to reestablish the towline connecting the vessels, but the Aiviq then experienced total engine failure, leaving both tug and tow adrift in rough seas and high winds. Shell sent additional vessels to the scene to assist, and the Coast Guard responded with two cutters and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters. At Shell’s request, the Coast Guard evacuated the 18-person crew of the Kulluk on December 29. Coast Guard helicopters delivered engine parts and technicians to the Aiviq that enabled repair of the tug’s engines but—despite repeated efforts over the course of several days—neither the Aiviq nor any of the other response vessels were able to tow the Kulluk to safety.
At approximately 9pm local time on December 31, the Kulluk ran aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island. Photographs and video from the scene show waves pounding the grounded drilling unit. According to Shell, the Kulluk is carrying up to 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel, together with approximately 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. As of this writing, the hull is stable and upright, and so far there are no signs of contaminants in the water. Nevertheless, responders are staging spill response equipment to the area in the event of a spill. On January 2, an assessment team boarded the Kulluk to evaluate options for freeing the rig. But until the rig is off the rocks, we can only hope that the vessel remains intact and more serious environmental damage is avoided.
The dramatic grounding and salvage of the Kulluk overshadowed the earlier news that Shell’s other Arctic drillship—the Noble Discoverer—had significant problems of its own. The LA Times and Alaska Dispatch recently reported that the Discoverer had to be towed into port in Seward, Alaska after the drillship developed propulsion problems in November. While in port in Seward, a Coast Guard inspection revealed serious issues with safety and pollution prevention equipment. The problems were so severe that the Discoverer failed to meet federal and international requirements. The U.S. Coast Guard cited the Discoverer for the deficiencies and ordered the ship to remain in port until it was brought back into compliance with regulations. The ship’s owner, the Noble Corporation, acknowledged the problems in a press release and admitted that the Discoverer may have discharged pollutants without proper authorization. Noble claims that it corrected the most serious problems and the Coast Guard has lifted its detention order. As of this writing the Discoverer is still in Seward. According to news reports, a tug will tow the Discoverer to Seattle where the drillship will undergo additional repairs.
The grounding of the Kulluk and safety and pollution prevention problems on the Noble Discoverer come on the heels of a long string of other mishaps from last summer’s drilling operations—including the near-grounding of the Discoverer near Dutch Harbor last July and a failed test of Shell’s oil spill containment system that left Shell’s equipment “crushed like a beer can.” Shell’s track record of failure in 2012 raises serious questions about whether the company is capable of carrying out safe operations in Alaska’s challenging environments.