It all sounds so simple: Arctic sea ice is retreating, so let's get over there and start some off-shore drilling! Unfortunately the Arctic isn't a friendly place, not to humans and not to oil executives.
Commenter Lodger links to this ominous news article about the Kulluk, "a $290 million offshore oil rig operated as part of Shell’s Arctic drilling efforts in summer", that has washed up at Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island, close to Kodiak Island's southeast shores.
All of it is worth a read, but here's the most interesting bit:
It's been a tumultuous several days for the Kulluk, which saw itself disconnected from the tug boats charged with moving the vessel from Alaska to the Lower 48 for the winter. Earlier this year, the Kulluk performed exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea for Shell.
For Shell, which has invested more than $4.5 billion to drill for oil and gas in Alaska’s Arctic, the latest troubles raise questions about how prepared the company -- as well as the Coast Guard -- are for problems in the far north.
The Kulluk and its tug weren't operating above the Arctic Circle when the problems started late last week. And the Coast Guard's Alaska headquarters at Kodiak are located relatively nearby the grounded Kulluk, making response efforts easier than in the Arctic, where the agency has no base. That has some Alaskans wondering what would happen if similar troubles ever occur in the much more remote and hostile Arctic Ocean.
"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," said Lois Epstein, the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, late Monday in a statement. "Shell’s costly drilling experiment in the Arctic Ocean needs to be stopped by the federal government or by Shell itself, given the unacceptably high risks it poses to both humans and the environment."
The tugs Aiviq and Nanuq tow the mobile drilling unit Kulluk while a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter lifts off from the Kulluk with a crew member aboard Saturday. The Royal Dutch Shell rig ran aground Monday, after days of problems with its towing journey in the Alaskan Gulf (source: Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis/U.S. Coast Guard, via NPR).
This is happening as we speak. The oil rig is grounded in "rocky" Ocean Bay, with 150,000 gallons of diesel, oil, and hydraulic fluid on board, with the following not-so-reassuring weather forecast:
Seas are expected to be up to 33 feet by Tuesday, with the potential for 40-foot waves as a large storm system delivers moisture from as far south as California. Satellite imagery shows the bulk of the storm headed right for Kodiak.
“They're in the bulls-eye of the whole thing,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Dan Peterson, who said the weather service is updating the unified command center hourly.
Shell's drilling fleet has been plagued with a string of delays and problems this summer, and the engine failures aboard the Aiviq came just one day after revelations that the company's massive drillship, Noble Discoverer, was delayed for several weeks in Seward after being ordered to stay put for repairs to safety and pollution prevention systems.
Here's a video the Coast Guard made and put up on YouTube (the videos in the right hand bar that can be clicked and take you to footage of the Deepwater Horizon drill spill, are there by pure coincidence). It shows the oil rig, the two tugs, and the helicopter that evacuated the 18 crew members aboard the rig:
I know Shell and its employees want/have to make big profits for their shareholders, I mean create wealth and freedom for the poor on our planet, and they probably have put revenues from Arctic fossil fuels in the books already, so that the whole economy breaks down if they don't drill and dig all of it out, but let's not go there, okay? Let's just not go there.
Let's be creative and innovative, cut down on our dependency on Shell and co, and do something better, something smarter.
Happy 2013, everyone.
From the Guardian:
Susan Childs, emergency incident commander for Shell, suggested a significant spill from the ship was unlikely.
"The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks are isolated in the centre in the vessel and encased in very heavy steel," she said.
Shell was waiting for the weather to moderate to begin a complete assessment of the ship, she said. "We hope to ultimately recover the Kulluk with minimal or no damage to the environment."
The Alaska Dispatch article has been updated:
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, the incident commander, said the Kulluk appears sound as of Tuesday afternoon, with no breach of hull and no discharge of fuel, lubricant or hydraulic fluid apparent from Coast Guard over-flights.
Mehler told reporters that the Kulluk grounding is now considered a salvage operation.
Over 500 people are now involved with the operations, according to officials with the Unified Command center. Of that, 250 are stationed in an Anchorage hotel ballroom, monitoring operations from afar.
Mehler described the operation as dynamic, thanks to challenging weather battering the area. Multiple Coast Guard aircraft have been deployed to the area, one of which is carrying a salvage crew the Coast Guard hopes to deploy on the Kulluk as soon weather allows. Although the Kulluk is stable, it is moving back and forth as strong seas batter the drilling rig.
“It's aground; it's swaying, but it's not moving,” he said.
Steve Russell, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's on-scene coordinator, added that while the Kulluk is stable, it still poses a serious environmental threat.
Russell said the customized response plans are being drafted. However, what those plans could be are unclear. After delivering brief statements, officials took few questions from gathered members of the press, citing a need to return to the recovery effort. Another press conference is being planned for this evening, at which officials said more time will be given for questions.
And questions are mounting over whether Shell -- a Netherlands-based oil and gas giant -- cut corners as it has pursued an ambitious, multibillion-dollar drilling program in Alaska's far northern waters over the past seven years.
Googling the term 'Kulluk' also brings you to this piece of info on a site that looks like it's Shell's:
Built in 1983 by the Japanese Mitsui company, the Kulluk drilling platform is vintage, tried and tested technology that exemplifies the best of Shells's Let's Go! arsenal. Among the Kulluk's exciting technologies are a 24-foot diameter glory hole bit for punching holes deep in the ice, a 20,000-foot drill pipe, 160-foot derrick, 49.5-foot rotary table, 1000-hp top drive, 500-ton swivel, and a 400,000-pound drill string compensator!Though the Kulluk is now almost 30 years old, she was inactive for fourteen of them, making her as reliable as a much younger craft.(...)
The Kulluk has recently been upgraded with new electronics. Her hull has been fully repaired, making her as Arctic ready as it's possible for a rig to be! To celebrate the Kulluk's revival, we've also significantly improved the look of the vessel, with a keel-to-topmast repainting job. And to make life more pleasant for Arctic-going workers, we've remodelled some interiors.No oil company has ever operated in an environment as extreme as the Arctic, let alone with heritage equipment—yet that's exactly the sort of challenge that makes the Arctic so appealing to many of us at Shell.On the slight chance that something does go wrong, Shell's spill cleanup plan is second to none. No one has yet fully determined how to clean up an oil spill in pack ice or broken ice—but that too is exactly the sort of challenge we love.
Could be the work of the Yes Men. Or Dr Inferno's. I think it's funny, although it isn't.
Today this image was posted at Alaska Dispatch. It's made by the US Coast Guard and shows the grounded Kulluk:
And a tidbit of info:
A White House source said that Obama’s staff was aware of the situation and was monitoring it on New Year's Day, highlighting the national implications of Shell’s mishap and what it might mean for U.S. energy policy.
Luckily, no spill as of yet.
Update 4 (January 7th)
The Kulluk has been towed to a safer place. Alaska Dispatch:
Finally, the Royal Dutch drilling unit Kulluk has a happy chapter in its tortured journey out of Alaska.
Officials confirmed Monday that the Kulluk reached safe harbor in Kiliuda Bay about 10 a.m. Monday after a 45-mile tow lasting about 12 hours from where the vessel ran aground off of Sitkalidak Island nearly a week ago.
Exactly where the Kulluk will sit in secluded Kiliuda Bay will be determined by environmental conditions, including weather, officials said. The extent of the vessel's damages from its grounding will be examined there.
The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley escorted the Kulluk and its tow tug the Aiviq -- along with two oil spill response vessels and other support vessels. A 500-yard radius safety zone around the Kulluk remains in place in Kiliuda Bay, which is far more shelted from nasty weather blowing that sometimes blows in from the Gulf of Alaska.
No signs of any oil discharge during the trip were seen.
Now we await whether this has any effect on policy with regards to Arctic drilling.
According to the Independent the Kulluk was where it was for an interesting reason. All the risks were taken so that less taxes would have to be paid. This, ironically, reminds me of a certain group in the climate debate that I rant against in Looking for winter weirdness 5.
Here are some quotes from the Independent article:
Shell’s ill-fated attempt to tow an offshore oil rig from Alaska to Seattle in the final days of December was motivated by a desire to avoid $7m (£4.3m) of Alaskan state taxes, it emerged today.
But the oil giant will instead suffer a multi-million dollar loss on the exercise after the rig ran aground off the Alaskan coast on Monday night.
However, because the rig ran aground late on New Year’s Eve and began 2013 within three miles of the Alaskan coast, Shell remains liable for a unique state property tax on equipment dedicated to oil and gas development and exploration.
Shell admitted today that its decision to move the rig, the Kulluk, just weeks after it was brought to the Gulf of Alaska in November, was motivated by financial considerations.
The Kulluk began its journey on 21 December and a week later was about 50 miles south of Kodiak Island – out of reach of the Alaskan tax man.
But the tug that was pulling it suffered multiple engine failures just as a subtropical cyclone made its way into the North Pacific. On Monday night, in the dying hours of 2012, the rig ran aground about 1,600 feet from Sitkalidak Island, next door to Kodiak.
How embarassing, but nothing compared to what would have happened if there had been an oil spill.