Oil ship runs aground in Alaska

From The Guardian:

Drill ship, the Kulluk, carrying about 155,000 gallons of fuel, drifted in stormy weather before being driven on to rocks.

The drill ship Kulluk is towed by the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq. Photograph: AP

A large drill ship belonging to the oil company Shell has run aground off Alaska after drifting in stormy weather, company and government officials said.

The ship, the Kulluk, broke away from one of its tow lines on Monday afternoon and was driven, within hours, on to rocks just off Kodiak Island, where it grounded at about 9pm Alaska time, officials said.

The 18-member crew had been evacuated by the coastguard late on Saturday because of risks from the ongoing storm.

There was no known spill and no reports of damage, but the Kulluk had about 155,000 gallons of fuel on board, said coastguard commander Shane Montoya, the leader of the incident command team.

With winds reported as reaching 60 miles an hour and Gulf of Alaska seas of up to 12 metres, responders were unable to keep the ship from grounding, he told a news conference late on Monday night in Anchorage.

“We are now entering into the salvage and possible spill-response phase of this event.”

The grounding of the Kulluk, a conical, Arctic-class drill ship weighing nearly 28,000 gross tonnes, is a blow to Shell’s $4.5bn (£2.8bn) offshore programme in Alaska. Its plan to convert the area into a major new oil frontier has alarmed environmentalists and many Alaska Natives, but excited industry supporters.

Environmentalists and Native opponents say the drilling programme threatens a fragile region that is already being battered by rapid climate change.

“Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska’s weather and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during transit,” Lois Epstein, Arctic programme director for the Wilderness Society, said in an email.

“Shell’s costly drilling experiment in the Arctic Ocean needs to be stopped by the federal government or by Shell itself given the unacceptably high risks it poses to both humans and the environment.”

The Kulluk’s woes began on Friday, when the Shell ship towing it south experienced a mechanical failure and lost its connection to the drill vessel.

That ship, the Aivik, was reattached to the Kulluk early on Monday morning, as was a tug sent to the scene by the operator of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. But the Aivik lost its link on Monday afternoon, and the tug’s crew could only try to guide the drill ship to a position where, if it grounded, “it would have the least amount of impact to the environment”, Montoya said.

Shell used the Kulluk in September and October to drill a prospect in the Beaufort Sea. It was being taken to Seattle for the off-season when the problems began.

Susan Childs, emergency incident commander for Shell, suggested a significant spill from the ship was unlikely.

“The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks are isolated in the centre in the vessel and encased in very heavy steel,” she said.

Shell was waiting for the weather to moderate to begin a complete assessment of the ship, she said. “We hope to ultimately recover the Kulluk with minimal or no damage to the environment.”

The Kulluk was built in 1983 and there were plans to scrap it before Shell bought it in 2005. The company has spent $292m since then to upgrade the vessel.

Shell’s Arctic campaign has been bedevilled by problems. A second drill ship, the Discoverer, was briefly detained in December by the coastguard in Seward, Alaska, because of safety concerns. A mandatory oil-containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, failed for months to meet coastguard requirements for seaworthiness and a ship mishap resulted in damage to a critical piece of equipment intended to cap a blown well.

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