* Shell's Kulluk drillship "upright and stable"
* Coast Guard plans more overflights of grounded rig
* Kulluk needed as backup for Shell's other Arctic rig
By Andrew Callus and Yereth Rosen
LONDON/ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan 2 The runaway oil
rig that ran aground in Alaska on New Year's Eve dragged two
vessels trying to control it more than 10 miles ( 16 kilometer s)
to ward shore in just over an hour before the crews cut it loose
to save themselves in "near hurricane" conditions.
Details were still emerging on Wednesday from the U.S. Coast
Guard and Royal Dutch/Shell, the company at the center
of a controversial and accident-prone Arctic oil drilling
program of which the Kulluk drillship is a vital part.
They paint a frightening picture of the 28,000-tonne,
saucer-shaped rig being thrust toward the shore on waves up to
35 feet ( 11 meter s ) h igh driven by winds up to 62 mph ( 10 0 kph),
p ulling its towing vessel, the Aiviq, and a tug, the Alert,
"We are talking about near hurricane-strength conditions,"
said Darci Sinclair of the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command,
set up by the U.S. Coast Guard and the companies involved.
"Regaining control became extremely challenging."
The unified command said the Kulluk was still aground on
Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, but "upright and
stable". Updates were available at www.kullukresponse.com.
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, while facing some embarrassing setbacks.
Headlines that raise questions about the wisdom of drilling
so far north in such a environmentally delicate and technically
challenging place were not expected so early in 2013, given that
activity stopped for the season two months ago.
Any Kulluk damage could threaten Shell's 2013 drilling
program because its oil-spill plans require a second rig to be
available at all times in case a relief well needs to be drilled
to kill the well. That is the Noble-owned Discoverer, which
would also be unable to drill without another rig nearby.
It was still too soon to tell. "We're not going to speculate
on the summer yet," said David Smith, spokesman at the Bureau of
Safety and Environmental Enforcement in Washington DC.
The earliest date that the drilling season could have
started last year was July 1.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard said the Kulluk's hull
appeared sound after a few overflights. More were planned on
Wednesday, with more than 600 people supporting the reponse.
The Kulluk was on its way south for the winter. It had been
towed east from the Beaufort, and then south through the Bering
Strait that separates the northernmost U.S. state from Siberia.
On Dec. 28, about half way to its winter destination in
Seattle, and 50 miles south of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of
Alaska, engine failure struck the Aiviq - an icebreaker that is
less than a year old, and whose name means "Walrus".
The weather was already rough and the Kulluk's 18-strong
crew was lifted off, when a doomed four-day battle to keep the
Kulluk off the rocks began.
The effort ran into deeper difficulty a few hours after
nightfall on Dec. 31, with the shore less than 19 miles away.
Aiviq, one of two vessels attached at the time, lost its
line. It was re-attached, and battled on against the elements
along with the Alert, but the coastline kept getting closer as
the storm pushed all three vessels northeastwards.
At 8:15 p.m. on Monay (Jan. 1, 0515 GMT) , the order came to
cut the lines to the Kulluk to save the Aiviq, the Alert, and
At 8:30 p.m., the lines were cut, and by 8:48, a trajectory
map on the unified command website shows, the Kulluk was aground
about 1,600 feet from the shore on Sitkalidak Island, near the
larger Kodiak Island. The Kulluk, the wind, and the waves had
dragged Aiviq and Alert more than 10 miles in just over an hour.
The vessel settled on what one Coast Guard official
described as "loose rock and sand".
Noble had no immediate comment. Shell in London has made a
series of statements on the progress of the operation, but had
nothing to add on Wednesday, and referred calls to the unified
command. Shell in Houston could not be reached for comment.
"ONE DISASTER TO THE NEXT"
The spill risk from the drillship is limited to the 143,000
gallons of ultra-low-sulfur diesel and 12,000 gallons of other
oil products on board. Still, opponents of Arctic drilling said
the accident showed Shell was unable to keep the Arctic safe.
"Shell has lurched from one Arctic disaster to the next,
displaying staggering ineptitude every step of the way,"
Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe said on Wednesday.
"Were the pristine environment of the frozen north not at
risk of an oil spill it would be almost comical. Instead it's
tragic," Ayliffe said. "We're moving closer to a major
catastrophe in the Arctic and the U.S. government appears
unwilling to provide either the needed oversight or emergency
backup the company's incompetence requires."
Shell's Arctic campaign has been bedevilled by problems. The
Coast Guard briefly detained the Discoverer in December in
Seward, Alaska, on safety concerns. A mandatory oil-containment
barge, the Arctic Challenger, failed for months to meet
requirements for seaworthiness, and a ship mishap resulted in
damage to a key piece of equipment intended to cap a blown well.
Asked why the Kulluk was still at sea two months after work
stopped, one contract drilling source said the "demobilization"
process after drilling can take days or weeks depending on the
rig model and its anchoring. It was also possible the weather
was rough enough over the last few months to delay transit.
Replacing the Kulluk, if it ends up being badly damaged,
would add to the cost of the accident for Shell, which must
reimburse the federal and state governments for response costs.
The Discoverer, which it has under contract with Noble,
costs $240,000 per day - or a few-hundred million dollars over
the life of the two-year contract. Shell had to spend $292
million upgrading the Kulluk, when was built in 1983 and had
been slated to be scrapped before Shell bought it in 2005.