The New Year opened dramatically for the controversial oil industry and their plans for the North Pacific. As fireworks were thundering in the sky’s overhead and the celebrations began in New York City another disaster was unfolding with an Ocean oil drilling rig. Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk Rig broke free from tow lines in high seas and grounded near the Native Village site of Old Harbour on Sitkalidak Island south of Kodiak Island.
The Rig was being moved from the exploratory drilling location in the Arctic waters, near Dutch Harbour, to Seattle. The rig is round with no directional hull and the towing vessels experienced extreme difficulties in maintaining the tow lines even though the seas were reported to be only 4 feet with 32 mile per hour winds. It was reported they had replaced the connections up to five times after one of the tow vessels suffered a mechanical failure forcing it to release its tether. Finally after two days, unable to maintain control, the last tug set it free to drift aground at Ocean Bay just after midnight, New York time, while the partiers were still celebrating the New Year.
This evening the Federal ‘On Scene’ coordinator for the American Coast Guard, Paul Mehler, classified it as a salvage operation. He stated the drilling rig contained 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of other oil products. Calling it a dynamic response he expressed concerns as the conditions have changed for the worse; the area is now experiencing 70 knot winds. The Kulluk “is aground but not moving” and the “goal is to get it off grounding.”
He stated his first concern was safety of the crews and the second is the environment. Currently, after two fly overs; one with a C130 and another with an H60, the observations are there has been no breech and the rig appears sound.
Steven Russell from Alaska Conservation stated this must be considered one of the largest response efforts in recent years and expressed concerns stating this presents a significant threat with potential impacts to the surrounding environment. He confirmed they are activating all of their emergency response plans and have equipment and resources staged in the nearby communities of Kodiak, Anchorage, Seward and the Kenai Peninsula.
At a news conference this afternoon reporters expressed some disappointment in their inability to ask more questions. Only four reporters were able to ask a question and the scrum was quickly shut down with the statement the men had to get back to address the ongoing situation. This provoked the ire of one reporter who drew reference to the Exxon Valdez disaster when reporters were kept abreast on the ongoing difficulties with constant media availability complaining about each only getting to ask one question. “Are you guy’s going to cut it off each time to one question each?”
The seriousness of this line of questioning relates to the difficulty Shell has been having this year with everything they have attempted in the Arctic. Shell has contracted Noble drilling to perform this task and in July of 2012 allowed one ship, the Noble Discoverer to break anchor and run aground in Dutch Harbor, read about it here
Following this incident Jackie Dragon of Greenpeace stated "Shell can't keep its drill rig under control in a protected harbor, so what will happen when it faces 20 foot swells and sea ice while drilling in the Arctic?"
And today she has a partial answer, as does the entire industry. The vessel Shell had specially built to move this rig had a full engine failure. Even though they were able to get the engines restarted they were unable to recover full control of the Rig. This initially occurred in relatively calm seas.
During the news conference the location of this accident was referred to as ‘fortunate’ due to emergency and rescue facilities in close proximity.
This incident is likely to be cited as another example of the foolhardy considerations to allow fully laden crude oil tankers transit the same waters from Douglas Channel and Kitimat, BC.
Enbridge Northern Gateway, a pipeline operator is currently proclaiming their advanced safety measures with an ad proclaiming the tankers will always be tethered to at least one tug boat. This Shell Rig, ship and tug incident demonstrates tug boats cannot be considered a reliable safety measure.
The massive bunker fuel spill in the Sullom Voe terminal at the Shetland Islands in 1978 should provide the best example of the unplaced faith in tugs for safety. The Esso Bernicia was being guided by three tugs. It was sailing empty, except for the bunker crude for fuel, into Sullom Voe to load up for a shipment for Norway. One of the three tugs had to release a tow line due to a mechanical problem. The other two tugs lost control of this empty ship and it smashed into a berthing dolphin ripping open the bunker crude hold spilling the fuel and fouling the beaches. Read more here
For more on the ongoing situation in the Gulf of Alaska stay tuned to the Anchorage Daily News. Find their latest report on the incident and the media scrum (their reporter was one who complained) HERE