Waves crash over the conical drilling unit Kulluk where it
sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island,
Alaska in this US Coast Guard handout photo. REUTERS/Petty
Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg'/USCG
The runaway oil rig that ran aground in Alaska on New
Year's Eve dragged the two vessels trying to control it more
than 16km shorewards in just over an hour before the crews cut
it loose to save themselves in "near hurricane" conditions.
Details were still emerging on Wednesday from coast guard
officials and Royal Dutch/Shell, the company at the centre of
a highly controversial and accident prone Arctic oil drilling
programme of which the Kulluk was a part.
They paint a frightening picture of the 28,000 tonne
saucer-shaped drillship being tossed towards the shore on
waves up to 11m high driven by winds up to 100kmh, pulling
its main support vessel, the Aiviq, and a tug, the Alert,
"We are talking about near hurricane strength conditions,"
said Darci Sinclair, an official of the Kulluk Tow Incident
Unified Command, set up by the U.S. Coast Guard and the
companies involved. "Regaining control became extremely
On Wednesday, an update from the unified command said the
Kulluk was still aground on Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of
Alaska, but was "upright and stable". It plans a number of
flyovers of the site during the day. Updates were available
The 30-year-old Kulluk is operated by Noble Corp and was
refitted by Shell for its summer 2012 drilling expedition in
the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska.
Shell has spent over $4.5 billion on preparation for
extraction activities there and in the Chukchi Sea further
east, but has yet to complete a single well, and has suffered
a number of embarrassing setbacks.
2013 headlines that raise questions about the wisdom of
drilling so far north in such a remote, environmentally
delicate and technically challenging place, were not expected
so early in the year, because activity stopped for the season
two months ago.
The Kulluk was on its way south for the winter. It had been
towed east from the Beaufort Sea on Alaska's northern coast,
and then south through the Bering Strait that separates the
northernmost U.S. state from Siberia.
On Dec. 28, around half way to its winter destination in
Seattle, and about 50 miles off the south coast of Kodiak
island in the Gulf of Alaska, engine failure struck the
towing vessel Aiviq - a state-of the art icebreaker that is
just a few months old, and whose name means "Walrus".
The weather was already rough and the drillship's 18-strong
crew were lifted off, and a doomed four-day battle to keep
the Kulluk off the rocks began.
As weather conditions worsened, the operation ran into deeper
difficulty a few hours after nightfall on Dec 31, with the
shoreline less than 19 miles away.
Aiviq, one of two vessels that were attached at the time,
lost its line. It was re-attached, and battled on against the
elements along with the Alert, but the coast kept getting
closer as the storm blew all three vessels northeastwards.
At 2015 (Jan. 1, 0515 GMT), the order was given to cut the
lines to the Kulluk to save the Aiviq, the Alert, and their
At 2030, the lines were cut, and by 2048, a trajectory map on
the unified command website shows, the Kulluck was aground
about 1,600 feet from the shore on Sitkalidak Island, near
the larger Kodiak Island. The Kulluk, the wind, and the waves
had dragged Aiviq and Alert more than 10 miles in just over
The vessel settled on what one Coast Guard official described
as "loose rock and sand".
Noble had no immediate comment. Shell in London has made a
series of statements confirming the progress of the
operation, but had nothing to add on Wednesday, and referred
calls to the unified command. Shell in Houston could not
immediately be reached for comment.
But opponents of Arctic drilling were quick to hold the
accident up as an example of Shell's inability to keep the
Arctic safe, even though the spill risk from the drillship is
limited to the 143,000 gallons of ultra-low-sulfur diesel and
12,000 gallons of other oil products on board.
On Wednesday, Greenpeace joined the chorus of criticism.
"Shell has lurched from one Arctic disaster to the next,
displaying staggering ineptitude every step of the way. Were
the pristine environment of the frozen north not at risk of
an oil spill it would be almost comical. Instead it's
tragic," said campaigner Ben Ayliffe. "We're moving closer to
a major catastrophe in the Arctic and the U.S. government
appears unwilling to provide either the needed oversight or
emergency backup the company's incompetence requires."
The U.S. Coast Guard said on Tuesday that the Kulluk's hull
appeared sound after a few overflights.
Shell's Arctic campaign has been bedevilled by problems. A
second drillship, the Noble Discoverer, was briefly detained
in December by the Coast Guard in Seward, Alaska, because of
safety concerns. A mandatory oil-containment barge, the
Arctic Challenger, failed for months to meet Coast Guard
requirements for seaworthiness, and a ship mishap resulted in
damage to a critical piece of equipment intended to cap a
Asked about why the Kulluk was still at sea two months after
ending its drilling programme, a reliable contract drilling
source said the standard "demobilization" process that
follows drilling programs can take days or weeks depending on
the model of rig and how it is anchored.
It is also possibile that the weather was rough enough over
the last few months to delay transit. The availability of the
towing vessel and crew could also be a factor.