The multinational oil giant Shell is facing fresh criticism of its Arctic offshore oil drilling programme, after one of its platforms was left stranded in an environmentally sensitive area of the Alaskan coast.
The rig, called Kulluk, ran aground on an uninhabited island during a storm at the weekend while being towed back to Seattle for maintenance. By high winds and heavy seas were still preventing crewmen from boarding to check for damage.
No leak has so far been seen from the rig, which is carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lubricating oil and hydraulic fluid – relatively small amounts compared to major oil spills, but still enough to cause damage in the area of pristine wildlife.
The damage is more likely to be to Shell's reputation, after a first oil exploration season in Arctic waters which went disastrously wrong. The $4.5bn programme in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas saw very little drilling, produced no viable oil wells and was highlighted by another grounding, that of the rig Noble Discoverer.
The latest incident brought strong criticism from opponents of Shell's presence in the Arctic. "This is yet another example of how utterly incapable this company is of operating safely in one of the planet's most remote and extreme environments," said Ben Ayliffe, a Greenpeace campaigner.
A Shell official said the drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is three inches thick, and had recently had undergone $292m in improvements. Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, said an investigation will be conducted once the situation is under control. He did not know whether the findings would be made public.
"Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies," said the US Congressman Ed Markey, the leading Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee. "Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment."