Salvage team boards crippled oil rig off Alaska

A salvage team boarded the Royal Dutch Shell

A salvage team boarded the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk Wednesday as a North Pacific storm abated and waters around the rig calmed. The rig beached Monday on rocks off a small island near Kodiak Island after breaking tow lines and being cut adrift. (Jan. 2, 2013) (Credit: AP)

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Salvage experts have visited the grounded Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig to evaluate how it should be moved from rocks along a beach of an Alaska island in the North Pacific.

The mobile drill vessel Kulluk drifted onto the rocks near Sitkalidak Island Dec. 31, after it was cut free from a tugboat when tow lines from another vessel broke during a storm. The vessel was being moved to Seattle for maintenance after the Arctic drilling season ended.

A team of five salvage experts was lowered onto the rig by helicopter Wednesday and spent about three hours to conduct a structural assessment that will be used to create salvage plans, according to a statement from the response team monitoring the grounding in Anchorage more than 250 miles away.

The Coast Guard flew over the vessel to check for oil sheen from leaks and reported finding none. It is carrying about 139,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of drilling fluids.

Smit Salvage, a unit of Koninklijke Boskalis Westminster NV, is heading the salvage operation. The rescue company was involved in the recovery of the Costa Concordia, which struck a reef off Italy last January.

QUESTIONS ON FUTURE DRILLING

Shell said it is reviewing the accident with an eye toward improving the safety of the venture. It has had a series of problems in its seven-year quest to tap the undersea Arctic oil resources, and the latest has given more ammunition to its critics who say the company is not up to the demands of Arctic marine drilling.

"It's just another of the long line of incidents that have bedeviled Shell throughout the year that prove that operating in the Arctic safely is a misnomer," Ben Ayliffe, head of the Arctic campaign for the environmental group Greenpeace, said in an interview. "You wonder how much more the U.S. authorities have to see before it's clear to everyone that Shell shouldn't be operating there."

Shell said in a statement, "We have already begun a review -- working with our marine experts, partners and suppliers -- of how this sequence of events, including the failure of multiple engines on the MV Aiviq towing vessel led to this incident. We intend to use lessons from that review to strengthen our maritime fleet operations, globally."

The company has spent about $4.5 billion preparing to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas on Alaska's Arctic coast, including procuring leases and $250 million a year just to maintain the ability to operate there, according to Tad Patzek, a former Shell researcher who chairs the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

REMOTE AND INHOSPITABLE

Patzek described the Arctic as "the most difficult and inhospitable environment on the planet," where the ocean can freeze all the way to the sea floor in places, requiring that pipes and wellheads be buried.

Most drilling equipment must be delivered by ship from the Lower 48 states, increasing the risk of an accident that can foul the fragile ecosystem.

It is home to about 240 fish species, 12 species of marine mammals, four species of whales, the polar bear, the walrus, and six species of seals.

There are 64 species of seabirds that breed in the Arctic while about 50 million seabirds nest on Alaska's coast each summer, Patzek said.

Shell and other operators are willing to take the risk and expense to develop what Patzek called the world's largest untapped oil resource. Still, it may take 10 to 15 years before oil begins flowing from the region, he said in an interview.

"Shell doesn't do it because it's neat to do it but because there's an expectation of a very large find of oil," Patzek said. "What's in order in my mind is the go slow approach. We take our sweet time and develop suitable technology to produce the resource."

A CALL TO STOP DRILLING

A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore drilling, declined to comment on whether it was reconsidering its approval of drilling in the region.

"All equipment Shell proposes to use in drilling operations must first satisfy rigorous inspection and testing standards," said the spokesman, Nicholas Pardi, in an email. "Any approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards."

Shell received a permit to begin preparatory work in the Chukchi Sea. It announced Sept. 8 that drilling had started -- the first time in two decades that the U.S. Arctic sea floor had been touched by a drill bit -- although was forced the next day to disconnect its rig from the well to avoid encroaching sea ice.

Days later, the company said it would abandon oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic waters for the year.

"This latest accident put lives at risk and created the risk of significant environmental harm," Michael LeVine, senior Pacific counsel for the environmental group Oceana, said in an interview. "It must be a wake-up call to the government to reconsider the approvals it's granted Shell."

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