“Oil Rig Reaches Safe Harbor After Grounding at Sea”
The future has not been looking very bright for Shell Oil, which has planned drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea. The Kulluk, an oil rig that does not have the ability for independent power, was being towed to Seattle for the winter, when it ran into foul weather on New Year’s Eve. The vicious storm, typical for Bering Strait winter weather, whipped up hurricane proportion winds, grounding the rig near the coast of Sitkalidak, an uninhabited island near Kodiak.
The towing vessel, the Aivaq, was pulling the rig away from Sitkalidak, when waves up to thirty-five feet high and 62 mph. winds dragged the Aivaq, along with the tug boat, Alert, for ten miles toward shore, before the two towing crafts cut the lines loose to save their crew.
The trouble began when the ice-breaker vessel, the Aivaq, suffered engine failure, leaving it powerless to battle the stormy sea. Its line to the Aivaq snapped, but was later reattached as the crew battled to keep the rig from being pulled in to shore by the northeastern winds. On January first, just nineteen miles from shore, the towing vessels were ordered to snap their lines for safety considerations.
Fortunately for the Kulluk, they were not far from a Coast Guard station. Their eighteen man crew were lifted off before the rig ran aground. More than six hundred people responded to the potential disaster, that resulted in three minor injuries, and a response team on alert for possible oil spills from the rig that is reported to be carrying 139,000 gallons of diesel. The rig, however, remained upright, despite grounding just under two thousand feet off shore, and does not appear to have lost any of its fuel. It has since been re-floated and hauled to Kiiuda Bay, a sheltered cove about forty miles from Sitkalidak, where it will be accessed for possible damages.
The incident has revived a great deal of debate as to the safety of drilling in the Arctic Sea. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas have notably more difficult weather conditions than the Bering and do not have available Coast Guard units that can give a quick response time to vessels in distress. This is the second rig sent out by Shell in the year 2012 to suffer a mishap. An engine fire gave a premature halt to the Noble Discoverer, along with legal complications by federal authorities for discharging fluids from a containment vessel.
Shell has not responded to questions concerning why it chose to begin its journey back to Seattle for maintenance operations in the unfavorable months of December and January. It has been accused of trying to avoid Alaskan oil tax laws that state drilling equipment left in the state after January 1 are subject to a two percent taxation. If the rig had remained in its Beaufort location, it’s possible it would have been liable for six million dollars in taxes, although the issue is debatable. Technically, the Kulluk was in federal waters. There have been no legal precedent for taxing oil production, exploration or transportation in federally reserved areas.
The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are estimated to hold 23 billion gallons of recoverable oil, but a fragile ecosystem and a harsh environment present obstacles to their development. To date, Shell Oil has invested 4.5 billion dollars in its attempt to develop the oil reserves of the Arctic Sea.