* Salvage teams found no signs of breaches to fuel tanks
* U.S. Coast Guard: more work to do on salvage operation
* Operation involved more than 630 people, cost still
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan 7 A Shell oil drilling
rig that ran aground last week reached a safe harbor on Monday,
where it will be examined to assess its seaworthiness.
A rescue team towed the Kulluk drillship 30 miles (48 km) to
shelter in Kiliuda Bay, Royal Dutch Shell's emergency
response coordinator said.
The fortunes of the saucer-shaped Kulluk, which started
drilling in the Beaufort Sea late last year, face particular
scrutiny because it was a major part of Shell's controversial
and error-prone 2012 Arctic drilling program.
Last week, stormy weather wrestled the rig from the ships
towing it, and tossed it to the shore of Sitkalidak Island. On
Sunday night, the rig was refloated.
"The tow has gone pretty much as expected," Sean
Churchfield, Shell's Alaska ventures manager, said at a Monday
news conference in Anchorage.
Kiliuda Bay was previously designated a refuge for disabled
vessels. Churchfield said it has not yet been determined whether
the Kulluk will be fixed there or somewhere else, and whether it
will continue on for planned winter maintenance near Seattle.
The extent of damage had yet to be determined, although the
salvage teams found no signs of breaches to its fuel tanks and
only one area where seawater leaked onboard.
"We were not able to have that detailed assessment where it
was aground," Churchfield said. "It would be speculation to say
what's going to happen next because, until we have that damage
assessment, we really will not be able to develop that plan."
PARTNER IN TOW
The Kulluk went aground in a storm on Dec. 31 after the ship
towing it, the Aiviq, lost power and its tow connection in the
Kodiak archipelago, far from where it began its well in
September and October.
On Monday, the Aiviq towed it to Kiliuda Bay even though an
investigation into its failures is not yet complete.
Alaska environmentalist Rick Steiner questioned Shell's
reliance on the Aiviq and said he believed the problems with the
Kulluk and its other contracted drillship, Noble Corp's
Discoverer, would preclude any drilling this year.
Shell officials in Alaska have so far declined to comment on
the upcoming Arctic drilling season, but the whole response team
will for now be relieved to have the Kulluk in safer waters.
"I think everybody on site and at the command center was
overjoyed, yelling and screaming and happy," said Steve Russell
of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the
state's response coordinator.
Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler recognized it as a major
milestone, but stressed there was still a lot of work to do. "We
are not letting our guard down," he said.
Prior to the Kulluk accident, Shell's main problem in Alaska
was the Discoverer, which had been assigned to Chukchi Sea work
but failed to meet federal air standards, prompting Shell in
June to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for a permit
with looser limits for air pollution.
In September, the ship dragged its anchor in the Aleutian
port of Dutch Harbor and nearly grounded on the beach there.
After drilling stopped, the Discoverer was cited by the
Coast Guard for safety and environmental-systems deficiencies,
which Shell and Noble vowed to fix before this summer's season.
And another ship deemed necessary for drilling was so beset
with problems that it never even made it to Alaska in 2012. The
Arctic Challenger, an oil-containment barge built specifically
for Shell's Arctic drilling, failed to win Coast Guard approval
for seaworthiness in time to allow any drilling to oil-bearing
depths. Shell was permitted to drill only "top-hole" wells, to
depths of about 1,400 feet (430 meters) below the sea surface.
As for the Kulluk, as of Sunday more than 630 people were
deployed in response, along with a large fleet of vessels and
aircraft, according to the incident command team. Shell will be
paying for it all, though the cost to date is unknown.