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Kulluk, Shell Oil's Arctic drilling rig aground on Sitkalidak Island, on the Alaskan coast.
The Kulluk, Shell Oil's Arctic drilling rig aground on Sitkalidak Island,
just off the southern coast of Kodiak Island.
So far there has been no breach in the hull of the Kulluk, the Royal Dutch Shell drilling barge that ran aground near Kodiak Island in southeastern Alaska late Monday. But the 138,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricating fluids on board are still at risk of leakage as the vessel is pounded on the rocks.

Two days after its 18-member transport crew had been safely evacuated, the Kulluk, Shell's mobile 30-year-old oil-drilling barge, came loose from one of its towing lines after engines on its tug failed and relief vessels, including a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, were unable to maintain control. It grounded itself on Sitkalidak Island, which has no human inhabitants. The upgraded rig was on its way to Seattle for maintenance when it was caught in major storm, with winds up to 70 miles an hour and seas of up to 50 feet.

No surprise to critics who have all along said that drilling in the Arctic Ocean is an extremely risky business and one that, for environmental reasons, should not be done.

The Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own and no keel. Without a tug or other vessel to tow it, the vessel is just, in the words of Jerry Beilinson, "an enormous floating piece of steel."

The Coast Guard is heading the unified response team and has set up a website here. The Coast Guard commander in Anchorage said a flight over the wrecked rig found no evidence that its hull had been breached. But blogger Philip Munger at Progressive Alaska has reported that it appears possible there will be punctures to the outer hull because of the pounding the vessel is getting on the island's rocks.

Beilinson points out:

If the Kulluk had run aground more than 1000 miles away on the coast of the North Slope, Shell would be largely on its own. The Coast Guard has no permanent facilities up there, and only one functional ice breaker [...]
A spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says no harm has yet been done to wildlife but that the Kulluk presents a threat to the bay and surrounding area.

The Wall Street Journal reported:

The accident gives ammunition to critics of Arctic drilling, who have said the region's extreme weather and remoteness make the chances of an oil spill or worker injuries too high. Shell has paid $292 million since 2006 to outfit the Kulluk so it could operate in Arctic conditions between July and October.

"It's clear from multiple incidents that oil companies cannot currently drill safely in the foreboding conditions of the Arctic, and drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment," Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) said in a statement.

It's not that the chances of an oil spill are too high. Oil spills of various sizes are inevitable. The issue is that if an accident of the magnitude of the BP Gulf of Mexico blowout occurs in Arctic waters where the extreme environment already makes life fragile, the devastation could be far worse and far more long lasting than anything we've yet seen. Just getting the requisite equipment and clean-up crews to the site would be tough.

But not to worry. Shell's A spoof website emulating Shell notes:

No oil company has ever operated in an environment as extreme as the Arctic, let alone with heritage equipment—yet that's exactly the sort of challenge that makes the Arctic so appealing to many of us at Shell.

On the slight chance that something does go wrong, Shell's spill cleanup plan is second to none. No one has yet fully determined how to clean up an oil spill in pack ice or broken ice—but that too is exactly the sort of challenge we love.

Riiiiiiiiiiight. Too bad that's not far off the mark for how Shell executives actually think.

Among the environmental advocates who have spoken up are Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant of Oasis Earth. Lisa Demer at the Anchorage Daily News writes that he has been raising questions for weeks about the lack of emergency towing resources along Shell’s route, including corresponding directly with the Coast Guard on the matter.

Steiner said in an e-mail early Tuesday. It appears “the rig was not adequately equipped for heavy weather towing, they should have called the Alert sooner, and tried to shelter sooner.  Clearly Shell should have thought through contingencies for a loss of tow in heavy weather, and they didn’t.  The weather encountered is not extreme and unexpected in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter—it’s just winter. This doesn’t inspire confidence in their safety and contingency planning capability.”
And Carl Wassilie, a Yup’ik Eskimo who coordinates Alaska’s Big Village Network, a grassroots group, said:
We’ve got a pattern of failures. I’m saying no, there’s no way that I can see any feasibility of drilling in the Arctic, especially with the extreme conditions that we’re seeing, not only with Mother Nature right now but also just the technical aspects of the failures that we’re seeing with the fleet.
But the drilling will go on. And, this year or next or the year after, an oil spill will occur. And Royal Dutch Shell or whichever oil company is in charge plus the politicians who gave the green-light to such drilling will say, who could have predicted?

••• •••

akmk has been providing excellent coverage of the story here.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Wed Jan 02, 2013 at 12:59 PM PST.

Also republished by Gulf Watchers Group.

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