This past Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report on its investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk near Kodiak, Alaska on December 31, 2012. A tug lost control of the Kulluk in heavy weather on the way to Seattle after Shell’s failed attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.
The Coast Guard report provides a detailed account of the events before the Kulluk ran aground and identifies a number of causal factors, including lack of experience in Alaska waters, failure to recognize risks, use of inadequate equipment, insufficient planning and preparedness and major problems with the primary towing vessel.
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.
Tar balls photographed by Louisiana state response teams on Elmer’s Island in Jefferson Parish on September 1, 2012. Credit: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Last week was a long one for Gulf Coast residents as we watched Hurricane Isaac waffle about where to land before settling on coastal Louisiana, causing massive flooding from storm surge in Mississippi and Louisiana and bringing businesses and communities to a grinding halt for over a week.
As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, what with hurricanes and flooding and power outages and devastation for too many people, we also had the pleasure of remembering (in case any of us had forgotten) that we are still in the grips of responding to and recovering from the BP oil disaster.
Far from magically disappearing, oil has persisted in the marine environment for over two years now, and the force of Hurricane Isaac has churned up an ugly reminder of how much work we still have to do to restore the Gulf ecosystem. Tarballs and mats are showing up from Louisiana to Alabama, even forcing the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to issue a closure for commercial fishing in the area of a large oil mat off Elmer’s Island.
Reckless Arctic drilling isn’t worth the risk. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.
In its quest to drill exploratory oil wells in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell made a lot of promises to government regulators about its ability to run a safe and clean drilling operation in the challenging Arctic environment. But as the drilling season approaches, Shell is already experiencing setbacks and backtracking on its commitments.