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Kulluk grounding: When the news gets personal

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Coast Guard photo

Most of the time, we in the news world try to separate our private lives from our work lives. We don’t write about things in which we are directly involved. Mostly. Except ... this is Alaska, an incredibly small state despite its size, and sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

Take, for example, last year, when I had to interview my boss, and ask some pretty tough questions over rumors concerning a fuel delivery to Nome that he had a big part in organizing. Not standard. Would never fly in the Lower 48. But, this isn’t there.

This week, it happened again. I got an early morning wake-up call from my significant other saying he was on his way to the waters off Kodiak to help wrangle Shell’s drill rig, the Kulluk. And despite the knowledge that the Crowley tug he works on is plenty strong to handle the conditions, I was worried.

I was worried because so many things have gone wrong with regards to Shell’s Arctic operations this year, and quite frankly, I would be much happier if people I loved were as far away from those workings as possible. Selfish? Yes. Logical? I think so.

Let’s review the facts of Shell’s year in Alaska. First, there were issues with air pollution emission permits regarding the 47-year-old drill rig, the Noble Discoverer, which Shell has contracted to drill in the Chukchi Sea. Then, there was the oil containment barge, Arctic Challenger, which despite its promotion as a state-of-the-art piece of equipment, couldn’t seem to get the Coast Guard stamp of approval for use in the Arctic. Then, during testing, a failure caused the oil spill containment dome to be significantly damaged. The drill rig Noble Discoverer drifted dangerously close to shore in Unalaska when its anchor slipped in July, and later drew attention when a rig stack “backfired” while the vessel was anchored in Unalaska in November. The same vessel was ordered to stay in Seward just days before the Kulluk’s trouble began, after it was found that significant repairs were needed to safety and pollution prevention systems.

As far as the drilling operations went, Shell’s plans were significantly curtailed, and the company was only able to drill the top of two wells in 2012.

And now this.

I’m not an expert in any of this, but when this many things go awry with any operation, something must be going wrong. Are things being rushed? Are the wrong people in charge? Is the potential money to be made too much to proceed without necessary caution? Are the conditions just so new and foreign that what we are witnessing is the fallout from the learning curve?

I’m not sure, but I know these are questions that won’t be answered with slick press releases and “everything-is-dandy” responses. The simple fact is that if companies like Shell want to be respected as having integrity, they must at some point own up to the fact that things are not going dandily. They must be publicly introspective about why so many mishaps occurred in 2012.

This week, Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman reporter Jim Paulin reported that Shell’s decision to move its vessels before the new year was motivated at least in part by taxes the company would have owed Alaska had it stayed in the state. Was the risk of towing the Kulluk through a vicious winter storm worth the $5 or $6 million it reportedly was to have saved by leaving Alaska? Did the company run out of time because of other delays? Who decided to try to move the vessel through this storm? Why did they not seek a safe harbor when the storm warning was issued? What do others in the industry think of that decision? The Kulluk is reportedly rated to handle 40-foot waves, but obviously, the conditions experienced off Kodiak Island this week proved that towing the Kulluk through winter conditions in Alaska requires significantly more resources than Shell had expected. It took two vessels to move the rig north on Monday night, and once the Aiviq lost its tow line, the 125-foot Crowley tug Alert wasn’t reportedly able to tow the vessel despite being earlier deemed one of the few vessels in the state capable of doing so. To the layperson, all that says one thing -- the Kulluk should not have been out in that storm.

There are a myriad of questions, and none of them were being answered at the hasty press conference held in Anchorage on Tuesday. Instead, the people who know answers to these and many other questions were reading prepared statements about how grateful they were that no one has gotten more than minor injuries in the incident thus far, and how wonderful it is that everyone is working together as a team.

I have no doubt that the top officials for Shell and Noble Drilling, which runs the rig, are relieved that all their crew is safe, but the simple fact is that the decisions of those in charge of the Kulluk resulted in a situation that put many other people’s lives at risk. No one should have been bobbing around out in 40-plus-foot seas trying to retrieve tow lines from drifting drill rigs, and while all has gone well so far, as far as the safety and health of responders, the risks were unnecessary and an imposition on the Coast Guard and other responding vessels and crew.

It’s another example of the fact that no one -- especially not private industry -- operates in a bubble. What they do in the name of making money directly impacts us – our loved ones, our environment, and the environment of future generations. Imagine this situation if it had occurred in the Arctic, hundreds of miles from responding vessels and helicopters to evacuate crew. How many lives would have been put at risk in that situation?

It is easy to point fingers and use hindsight as a means of criticism, but in the case of Shell’s operations in Alaska this year, too many things have gone wrong for the company not to be required to do some explaining and re-evaluating. No one should be risking their lives to make up for Shell’s missteps. It may seem like muddy waters when you look at the issue from an impersonal perspective, but when someone you love is out there trying to mitigate a situation they did not create, it becomes crystal clear. Shell’s efforts to be prepared to operate in Alaska have fallen far short.

Carey Restino is news editor of the The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary was originally published. It is reproduced here with permission.

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