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Shell drill rig finds safe home for now, crews check for damage

Ben Anderson,Suzanna Caldwell
Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship, the Kulluk, grounded at remote Sitkalidak Island in Alaska on Jan. 1, 2013.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis footage
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th Coast Guard District commander, Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator for the Kulluk mishap, and Sean Churchfield, Shell’s incident commander, discuss the situation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Jan. 1, 2013.
USGS Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield photo
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
The Arctic Challenger with the newly redesigned and repaired Containment Dome move away from the Port of Bellingham, Wash. on Dec. 12. The challenger had been moored since returning in September 2012 after a catastrophic failure of the first iteration of their containment process.
TJ Guiton photo
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
A night shot of the workers and equipment showing a markedly armored containment dome to replace the one which suffered a catastrophic failure in September 2012 during the initial testing process in calm, predictable conditions in the Salish Sea off of Anacortes, WA. Note the lateral ribs surrounding the upper portion of the dome as well as the outer steel plates to protect the dome from damage and enhance the strength of the structure to the pressures of ocean depths.
TJ Guiton
The west end of Sitkalidak Island's shore Ocean Beach, where shoals are visible beneath the waves. Sitkalidak Island is located near Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Ground Truth Trekking
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew evacuates 18 crewmen from Shell Oil's drilling ship Kulluk in 15 to 20-foot seas, 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, on Dec. 29, 2012.
Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak overflies the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq tandem towing the mobile drilling unit Kulluk 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The tug Alert from Prince William Sound and the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak are en route to assist.
US Coast Guard photo
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Curtis Smith, spokesperson for Shell Oil. June 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The anchor-handling vessel, the Alert, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
US Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell Oil Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby listens to David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, speaking at the Arctic Imperative Summit. August 26, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG photo
Royal Dutch Shell has already begun studying land and sea features to determine the best route and depth to place at least 400 miles of pipelines that can carry crude oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline. The company is considering several options across a wide swath of ocean and tundra. This map was created to provide a general idea of the direction those pipelines will take.
Aaron Jansen illustration
The Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Royal Dutch Shell’s troubled drill rig Kulluk found its way back into deeper waters Sunday night, after nearly a week stranded in shallow waters off of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. By Monday morning, the circular, 266-foot-diameter rig had been towed 30 miles north to the relative shelter of Kiliuda Bay, on the east side of Kodiak Island.

On Monday afternoon, the Kulluk dropped anchor in 115 feet of water, solidifying itself in its new home, at least for a little while. Now, officials hope to evaluate any damage suffered by the unit during its time in the rocky shallows of Sitkalidak.

There were few details of what would happen going forward, but officials at Unified Command -- a conglomeration of state, borough and private agencies overseeing the response to the Kulluk grounding -- said that the rig arrived in Kiliuda Bay at about 10 a.m. Monday, 12 hours after the tow began.

According to Sean Churchfield, incident commander for Shell Alaska, the tow went “pretty much according to plan.” Earlier in the day, the Kulluk had been connected to Shell’s tow vessel Aiviq, the ship hauling the Kulluk when it initially broke loose and began its on-again, off-again journey to shore.

“The information that I have is that the tow line was connected, the Aiviq was pulling steadily, and at (10:10 p.m.) when the (Kulluk) came up was pretty close to the top of the tide line,” Churchfield said.

Steven Russell, state coordinator with the Alaska Department of Conservation, said that people in the command center were “overjoyed” when word came in that the Kulluk was once again refloated.

“I think everybody was yelling, and screaming, and very, very happy,” Russell said of when the Kulluk finally pulled away from shore.

But that was just one small victory in a still-developing situation, as the Kulluk now moves into a phase where it can be evaluated for damage and examined to ensure none of the 150,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of other fluids aboard the Kulluk seep into the water.

“The plan we have at the moment is to bring the Kulluk into safe refuge, and at that point we are looking to deploy the anchor aboard the Kulluk,” Churchfield said Monday morning. 

Once that anchor was deployed shortly after noon Monday, three tug vessels were attached to the Kulluk by tow lines for improved stability. A representative at Unified Command in Anchorage said that the Kulluk had deployed its anchor, and not the multiple mooring lines it would utilize if it were drilling. The Aiviq had disconnected from the Kulluk but remained in the area.

Another Shell vessel, the Nanuq, provided infrared imagery during the overnight trip to Kiliuda Bay, since the darkness made it difficult to spot any possible oil sheens resulting from a spill. Russell said there was no indication of a spill during the Kulluk’s northbound trip. Once the daylight arrived, a Coast Guard overflight of the Kulluk also failed to reveal any sheen on the water.

The Nanuq was also standing by, along with several other vessels, including the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley and three other ships.

Among details that still weren’t clear on Monday afternoon was how long the Kulluk would remain in Kiliuda Bay, the method by which the condition of the hull would be assessed -- whether by dive team or submersible -- and where any needed repairs might be performed.

“That is going to be extremely dependent on the outcome of the assessment,” Churchfield said. “But once we have that information we’ll be working the plan forward.”

Also connected to the Kulluk and providing extra stability during the tow was the Crowley-operated tow vessel Alert, called to assist in the recovery effort. The Unified Command estimated that 730 people were now involved in the response.

Also happening Monday was a shore assessment on Ocean Bay and Sitkalidak Island, where Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler and Russell said that lifeboats from the Kulluk containing fuel had washed up, as well as other possible debris. 

No fuel spilled, but political fallout everywhere

In light of the Kulluk fiasco, questions have been mounting over what the future holds for Shell's Arctic explorations, specifically, how the political landscape will look as Shell attempts to move forward.

Despite repeated inquiries from reporters, officials have said little about what Shell's future Arctic prospects will look like, focusing instead on the immediate recovery efforts.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said while there have been no serious injuries and no sense of imminent environmental damage, Shell's hasn't dodged the “political fallout” the incident has caused.

Both Murkowski -- who serves as the top Republican on the senate energy committee -- and Sen. Mark Begich have made mention of formal inquiries on the Kulluk tow fiasco. Which committees would conduct those inquiries and when are still unclear, though Murkowski noted that “we know that's coming.”

It's a step toward getting answers to questions that many with stakes in Arctic drilling are pressing for -- or criticizing. Environmental groups, including the National Resource Defense Council, have called on the Obama Administration to halt future Arctic drilling permits.

Murkowski noted there are concerns over permits anytime, but that the political fallout of an event like the Kulluk grounding makes it “just that much more difficult.”

Murkowski expressed trepidation that incidents like the Kulluk tow could scare politicians into locking up the Arctic from further exploration.

Whether or not it will fuel debate on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unclear. As Alaska Dispatch reported in September, oil development in ANWR could pose fewer risks than venturing offshore in the Arctic. But opening the refuge to oil exploration has long been controversial. And Murkowski doesn't expect President Obama to change his position on opening ANWR -- a project that has often been described as a “holy grail” for environmental advocates -- but noted that when it comes to oil drilling, looking onshore is a safe bet.

“We have demonstrated capabilities to extract on-shore with a pretty good track record,” she said. “(Off-shore drilling) is a difficult business with different factors at play -- weighing what's known versus unknown -- we simply know more about our capabilities on shore.”

More about what's next for Shell's Arctic drilling program might be known after the Coast Guard completes its investigation into the grounding of the Kulluk and the chain of events leading up to it. But officials have given no timeline for when that investigation might be completed.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com and Suzanna Caldwell suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com.