Last updated: January 7, 2013 9:46 pm

Shell drilling rig refloated in Alaska

The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig that ran aground in heavy seas off the south coast of Alaska a week ago has been successfully refloated and towed into a nearby harbour for damage assessment.

The Kulluk, a roughly circular drill-ship used by Shell in the Arctic, was refloated from a beach on Sitkalidak Island and then towed by the support ship Aiviq at about 4 miles per hour to a bay on Kodiak Island, 30 miles away.

Moving the Kulluk is an important success for Shell, which had been relying on the rig to play a central role in its planned Arctic drilling programme this summer.

However, it is not yet clear how much damage it has suffered. Salvage teams reported that waves had damaged the topsides of the rig, and hatches had been breached, allowing water into its generators.

Shell’s loss of control of the rig, which broke away from the Aiviq while being towed to Seattle for maintenance at the end of December, is the latest in a series of problems that have dogged the company’s plans to explore for oil off the north coast of Alaska.

It has not yet secured permits to drill into oil-bearing rocks, which will be approved by the US authorities only after the company has demonstrated the effectiveness of its spill containment system, intended to catch oil and gas leaking from a well on the seabed.

Environmental groups and politicians have argued that those permits should not be granted, at least until the investigation into how the company lost control of the rig has been concluded.

Marilyn Heiman of the Pew Environment Group said the accident would have been even more serious off Alaska’s north coast, where conditions are more severe and Coast Guard facilities and equipment are further away.

Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace said “The battered rig may finally be free, but after this latest fiasco Shell’s reputation is in tatters. The time has come for the US government to act. It is now patently clear that it is impossible to drill for oil safely in the Arctic.”

By Sunday, 730 people were involved in the response, including local residents.

When the Kulluk arrived in Kiliuda Bay, Coast Guard reported there was still no sign of any of the rig’s diesel fuel having leaked.

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