Shell rig runs into Alaskan shore

 

A drilling rig that Shell planned to use off Alaska's Arctic coast ran aground in a storm Monday night, after the crew had been rescued earlier by the Coast Guard. As of late Tuesday, no fuel had spilled.

The $290 million rig Kulluk ran into the rocky shore near Kodiak at 9 p.m., according to the Coast Guard. The agency's tugboats were unable to prevent the grounding in the midst of a storm with high winds.

According to Destin Singleton, a spokeswoman at the unified command center — which includes Shell, the Coast Guard and representatives from state, local and other groups — "there is no sign of release" of the 143,000 gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel the Kulluk is carrying.

"We're focused on safety," said Singleton, who said 500 people are responding to the incident and more are on the way. "We will do everything we can to prevent discharge, the Kulluk is stable and does not seem to be moving, and the weather is improving."

The Coast Guard conducted a helicopter survey Tuesday to monitor for any spills, Singleton said, and planned to conduct another one Tuesday night.

The accident is the latest of a series of woes that have impeded Shell's efforts to explore for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Unusually Thick ice over the exploratory drilling sites cut short last summer's drilling season; its Arctic Challenger oil-containment barge experienced permitting delay and was partially damaged in testing off Washington state in September; and one of Shell's drill ships nearly ran aground in July in Unalaska, Alaska, after dragging its anchor a few dozen feet. The company, which wasn't able to meet its goal of drilling up to six wells last summer, did initial drilling and installed blowout preventers at two well sites. It has been planning to resume activity when the Arctic ice melts and the open water season begins in July.

"The incident did not involve our drilling operations, nor does it involve any possibility of crude oil release," wrote Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh in an e-mail. "Through our role in the Unified Incident Command, we quickly mobilized experts to respond to this situation. And, we can confidently say that the Shell emergency response assets and contingences that were deployed over the last four days represent the best available in the world."

Lois Epstein, an engineer, is the Arctic program director of the Wilderness Society and a member of an Interior Department commission on safe offshore drilling practices. Epstein said that "the implications of this very troubling incident are clear: Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska's weather and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during transit."

She added that the rate of industrial accidents often goes up during holidays, when schedules shift and people who do not usually work together are on the job. "They should have just stuck around instead of moving forward," Epstein said.

Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program, said that the situation would have been even more dire if it had happened at the actual drilling sites 1,000 miles north, where it would be difficult for response teams to access the area quickly. "Given that the Kulluk has run aground, it calls into question our readiness to drill in such a remote and risky region," Heiman said. "The Obama administration needs to impose Arctic-specific safety, training and spill response standards. Clearly we're not there yet."

The Obama administration on Tuesday did not comment directly on the prospect for exploratory drilling operations next summer. The Alaska region director for the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is observing operations at the unified command center. The bureau's spokesman, Nicholas Pardi, issued a statement saying that any future "approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, who supports expanding oil exploration in Alaska, issued a statement hailing the Coast Guard's "heroism" in rescuing the Kulluk's crew and calling the incident a "horrible situation for any vessel." She said efforts should now focus on protecting the environment near Kodiak Island from possible fuel oil spill on the drilling vessel.

The Kodiak archipelago, where the rig ran aground, is home to nearly 250 bird species, including horned puffins, red-faced cormorants and Harlequin ducks. It boasts among the highest winter bird counts in Alaska. It is also home to Kodiak brown bears, who feed on salmon streams.

Ocean Bay beach, the actual site of the grounding, is a scenic beach and home to two important archeological sites. One features tools from an ancient civilization, while the other is the location of a battle between the Russians and the Alutiiq in the late 1700s.

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