January 4, 2013 6:44 pm

Coast Guard to probe stranded Shell rig

The US Coast Guard is sending a team to Alaska to investigate how Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk rig came to run aground on an island off the south coast of the state.

The Kulluk, a roughly circular vessel 266 feet in diameter, has been stuck on a gravel beach on Sitkalidak Island since Monday, as salvage teams wait for the weather to improve sufficiently for them to attempt to retrieve it.

A crew landed on the rig by helicopter on Wednesday reported water damage in places, including to the power generators, and possible evidence of a hole in a tank.

The stranding of the rig, used by Shell to drill in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of Alaska, has raised new calls for the company to be prevented from resuming its Arctic exploration programme this summer.

Shell has invested more than $4.5bn in its plans, and has high hopes of making large oil discoveries in the Arctic, but has been beset by objections from environmental campaigners, politicians and regulators.

The Coast Guard has said it will make public the results of its investigation, which could add to the pressure for fresh controls on Arctic drilling.

Democratic members of Congress in the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition described the accident as “the latest in a series of alarming blunders” to have hit Shell, including the failure of its oil spill containment system during testing last September.

Marilyn Heiman of the Pew Environment Group said: “The Obama administration needs to impose Arctic-specific safety, training and spill response standards and ensure the proper precautions are in place before approving any additional drilling. Clearly we’re not there yet.”

Shell had been moving the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor in southwest Alaska to Seattle for maintenance, to take advantage of what appeared to be favourable weather conditions and to avoid a tax levied on oil and gas equipment in the state on January 1.

The rig was under tow by the Aiviq, a multipurpose support ship, when a storm with 20-foot seas sprang up, and the cable connecting them broke on December 27.

The Aiviq then lost power in all four of its engines, and the Kulluk began to drift. The Aiviq and other vessels managed to reattach lines to the rig, but failed to keep it under control and the connections broke again. The Kulluk ran aground on the evening of December 31, after all 18 crew members on board had been evacuated.

The Coast Guard says one success of its operation has been that no one has been seriously injured.

Smit Salvage, a company that helped retrieve the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground last year, has been hired to work on the Kulluk. It has managed to attach an emergency towing system and is waiting for more specialised equipment.

The five-member salvage team that landed on the rig on Wednesday and Thursday found wave damage to the topsides of the rig, and that some watertight hatches had been breached, allowing water inside that damaged emergency and service generators.

Sean Churchfield, the operations manager for Shell Alaska, also said they had seen one of the rig’s tanks that was “sucking and blowing a little bit”, which could be a sign that it had been breached and waves were rushing in and out.

However, there is still no sign that any of the rig’s 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel have leaked.

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