| ANCHORAGE, Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska Jan 24 A Shell drilling rig
that ran aground near Alaska's Kodiak Island remains anchored in
a nearby sheltered bay three weeks later, and its fate is as
unknown as whether the oil company will be able to drill in
waters off the state this year.
The damaged Kulluk drillship is a key part of Royal Dutch
Shell's ambitious plan to drill for oil in two parts of
the Arctic Ocean. Beyond its work last year in the Beaufort Sea
off Alaska's northern coast, it serves as a required backup for
Shell's contracted rig, the Noble Corp-owned Discoverer.
"Once we know more about the Kulluk's condition, we'll know
more about its immediate and long-term role in our ongoing
exploration," Curtis Smith, Shell's spokesman in Alaska, said of
the conical-shaped vessel built specifically for Arctic ice
conditions. "There is no timetable. This is a process that needs
to be extremely thorough, and we're treating it as such."
The Kulluk was being pulled across the Gulf of Alaska - part
of a long trek from the Beaufort to its maintenance shipyard
near Puget Sound - when it broke free of tow lines in a storm
and grounded off Sitkalidak Island on the night of Dec. 31.
It was towed 17 days ago from its grounding site to Kiliuda
Bay, a designated refuge area on the east side of Kodiak Island,
where it has been anchored in place and tethered to two tugs,
said a spokesman for the command team overseeing the move.
While no fuel tanks were breached, the Kulluk had flooding
damage to its power system and other areas, according to early
assessments. The U.S. Coast Guard-led incident command team said
last week that its condition was "consistent with what is
expected from a vessel of this type being on hard ground."
Other details about its condition were not available on
Thursday. "The assessment's still ongoing at this point," said
Jim Appleby, a Shell official on the incident command team.
The Kulluk's hull was examined by a team of 12 divers and a
remote-operated vehicle. Those on-site examinations were
completed last week, but the results have yet to be released.
All this means more uncertainty for the Discoverer, which
did some drilling last year for Shell in the more remote but
potentially more oil-rich Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska.
"We don't have any insight into how this 2013 drilling
season may play out, but I can assure you that every effort is
being made right now by both companies to prepare the vessel for
operations in 2013 in some format," Noble Chief Executive David
Williams said on a call with investors on Thursday.
Williams said the past year in Alaska had revealed areas
where Noble must improve, but he hoped it could apply the
experience and geographic insight it gained in the near future.
Both the Kulluk and Discoverer operate with a fleet of
support vessels, and each one is required, under Shell's
exploration permits, to be available to drill a relief well in
case the other drillship is involved in a well blowout.
The Coast Guard had found safety and environmental
deficiencies with the Discoverer that Noble planned to address
through maintenance. But with so many resources devoted to the
Kulluk, Shell has been unable to move it to the Puget Sound
area, Smith said, and there is no timetable yet for that.