Shell Alaska oil rig ready for towing after line attached

LONDON Mon Jan 7, 2013 3:10am EST

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LONDON Jan 7 (Reuters) - A tow line has been attached to the Shell oil drilling rig grounded off an Alaska island since a New Years Eve storm, meaning that officials will be able to begin a process to move the vessel to more sheltered waters on Monday.

According to a release on the website of the response team which is dealing with the Kulluk incident, the main tow line was attached on Sunday at 4pm Alaska time (0100 GMT), after rough weather prevented a connection being made on Saturday.

"All elements are in place for towing operations to proceed. The proposed plan is that the Kulluk will be moved from its current grounded position in Ocean Bay to Kiliuda Bay, about 30 miles north," the Kulluk response website said.

The stricken Kulluk oil rig is owned by Royal Dutch Shell and is a vital part of its controversial Arctic oil drilling program, which has encountered several problems.

Kiliuda Bay is a sheltered site, previously designated as a refuge for disabled vessels, where experts plan to make a better assessment of the Kulluk's sea worthiness.

The salvage master has the discretion to start towing the rig earlier should favourable conditions occur during the night, the Kulluk response website added.

The Kulluk was on its way south for the winter and had been towed east from the Beaufort Sea, and then south through the Bering Strait that separates the northernmost U.S. state from Siberia, when the four-day battle to keep it off the rocks began on Dec. 31.

The 30-year-old Kulluk is operated by Noble Corp and was refitted by Shell for its summer 2012 drilling expedition in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska.

Shell spent $4.5 billion preparing for extraction activities there and in the Chukchi Sea further east, but has yet to complete a single well.

Headlines that raise questions about the wisdom of drilling so far north in such an environmentally delicate and technically challenging place were not expected so early in 2013, given that activity stopped for the season two months ago.

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