While we were all enthralled by the drama in Washington over the fiscal cliff, Shell Oil slipped us a belated Christmas present. As you may know, Shell is drilling exploratory wells in the environmentally sensitive Beaufort sea, which happens to have some of the worst weather on the planet. They bought an old drill rig that was about to be scrapped, refitted it, and took it up to Alaska with a companion to see if mankind can conquer mother nature and win the mother lode of oil profits.
One minor flaw with the plan is that the Beaufort sea freezes over in winter, so the rigs have to be towed back to a safe harbor. However, they do not want to miss a day of drilling time so they push the window of safe transit (never large in Alaska even in the 'summer') as far as possible.
Somehow this ended up with them deciding to tow the drill rig known as "Kulluk" from Dutch Harbor to Seattle in January. It is a big rig and it tows very slowly. I'm not a professional captain but even I could have told them what would happen; 50 knot winds are common off of Sitka in the summer! In the winter, hurricane-force winds don't even make the local news.
Now that the rig is hard aground on an exposed shore of a rocky, volcanic island (not sandy gravel as the press release claims) they are making cheerful noises about pulling it out with a big cable. I'm not a professional tugboat captian but even I can tell them how likely that is to succeed.
Sitkalidak Island is now in the news for the first time in about 200 years. Previously it was in the news for the massacre of natives by the Russians, now it is the massacare of the native's livelyhood by their fellow citizens.,
Follow the story and my speculations after the orange blob of petrochemicals.
My diary was going to be an exploration of the difficulties of salvaging the rig and the idiocy of transporting a rig in an Alaskan winter. (They were surprised by 70 knot winds and 30 foot seas?) It is practically impossible to recover intact despite the best efforts of very smart and dedicated people who are risking their lives to do so.
However, one picture in the Coast Guard's photo blog (forgive me for not uploading it, it is copyrighted and I don't know how to link to it properly through flickr) makes me wonder if any of the press releases that I have been reading are true.
The current claim is that the rig is upright on sand, mud, and cobble and that there is no oil sheen visible. The hull is "built like a battleship" with three-inch steel and will survive. (No mention of the battleships in history that have gone aground and sunk.) http://www.rigzone.com/... Nothing to worry about, right?
I agree that the rig is upright, but this picture from the USCG photo stream shows a clear sheen from the rig. http://www.flickr.com/... It goes from the rig to the lower right of the screen, under the helicopter, and back towards shore. This is unmistakable to anybody who works or plays on the water, since oil leaks and the associated fines are one of our biggest nightmares. I cannot say what the substance is, but it is clearly coming from the rig. If this were my boat, I'd be in big trouble...
Shell also claims that the rig is grounded in "sand, mud, and cobble." This picture (which was taken to illustrate that the safety boats had been torn from the rig and were strewn about the shore) shows a shore that does not fit that description in any way. If you look at the NOAA chart for Sitkalidak island (http://www.charts.noaa.gov/...) you will see no area that meets that description. The entire island is surrounded by underwater rocks with a few fields of kelp. The "rky" abbreviation that you see in several places doesn't mean "nice mud bottom with good holding."
If you look through the entire photo stream (https://www.piersystem.com/...) and look specifically for pictures of the rig taken from shore you will see that the shoreline is filled with large angular blocks of what appear to be a lava rock. In my experience (and I have high-tech depth sounders and forward-looking sonar) if you see rocks above the tide line, you will see the same thing below the tide line. If I were to send my boat aground anywhere, it would not be this shore.
The most recent press conference is somewhat more realistic than previous ones (hampered by lack of information) in that they admit that the deck of the rig has been compromised and all of the electrical systems aboard are out. No kidding, it is probably half full of seawater by now -- water high enough to tear off lifeboats will tear off hatches.
I'm not sure exactly where I am going with this diary except to try to bring attention to a big problem that is being ignored by the media. We are attempting to drill offshore in alaskan wilderness areas, and it is going quite badly. Shell doesn't seem to have the faintest idea of the weather conditions that they are up against, or the tremendous damage that they can cause. They are like so many exploiters of the Alaskan wilderness, in to make a quick buck without caring about the devastation that they cause to future generations.
I suppose this is a plea for someone with better media skills to go through the USCG photo stream (https://www.piersystem.com/...) and produce a diary that shows what is really going on here. The main media pictures do not give a very good idea of how close the rig is to the shore, that it is leaking anything, or how incredibly rugged that shore is. Nobody wants to offend Shell by saying that drilling in the Beaufort sea is one of man's stupider ideas...
5:56 PM PT: Update: 1/5/2013
They have confirmed that at least one of the inner compartments is "filled with water" but the fuel tanks are intact. The obvious implication is that the outer hull is breached but they claim the vessel is safe to tow.
They plan to tow it 30 miles to a safer anchorage, with a neat animation showing the route but not how they plan to get the damn thing off of the beach.
Fuel compartments are supposedly intact and they say that it is not leaking fuel. No mention if it is leaking anything else like drilling fluid, but perhaps I'm too skeptical.
They have started to deploy oil booms and wildlife recovery teams "purely as a precaution."
The company doing the salvage is the same company that salvaged the Costa Concordia, oops I mean that has plans to salvage the Costa Concordia some time next year maybe if it doesn't break in half first. (Seriously, they were described as having "salvaged" the Concordia...) They seem skilled at making neat animations.
Genuinue Alaskan salvage guy is skeptical and says it will be there until at least spring http://hosted2.ap.org/...
Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 9:04 AM PT: 1/7 Much to my surprise the rig is off of the rocks and being towed after a very difficult night at sea. Kudos to the brave men and women who pulled it off. They are trying to get to a safe anchorage. Until it is sheltered we are not out of the woods, towing a possibly damaged unit in gale force winds is no easy matter.
The best blog I have found so far is by Edward Teller of FireDogLake: http://my.firedoglake.com/... There is a live map of the position of the ships involved.
Shell is currently facing criminal investigation for problems related to their other drilling rig (which almost went aground in Dutch Harbor among other things.) They also admitted (and I find this in mainstream sources) that moving the Kulluk in winter was motivated by a tax dodge as some commentors noted.