Shell has made a dreadful start to its first attempt in 20 years to hunt for offshore oil and gas resources to the north of Alaska.
In November, the drill ship Noble Discoverer (a conversion from a former log carrier) was cited by the Coast Guard for problems with safety and pollution discharge equipment and held pending the most serious issues being dealt with.
Early last month, it emerged that the dome of a novel containment system designed to prevent loss of hydrocarbons to the environment in the event of an oil spill in Arctic waters was “crushed like a beer can” while being tested earlier in the year and may become subject to a Congressional Inquiry.
Shell had played down the failure during basic tests in Puget Sound and it was the Seattle radio station KUOW which forced disclosure via US freedom of information laws.
And as the final hours of 2012 ticked away, frantic operations were under way to rescue the drifting drilling rig Kulluk which broke free south of Kodiak Island while under routine tow in hurricane force winds and huge seas.
A team of 250 people from the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Shell, and one of its contractors were over the weekend of December 28-29 battling to get the unmanned Kulluk back under tow. The rig was eventually secured on New Year’s Eve.
The unusual ice-class rig was being towed by the support vessels Aiviq and Nanuq when the tow-lines parted under stress of weather.
A third vessel, the tug Alert, which is usually stationed in Prince William Sound as part of an emergency response system, was called in to assist the rigs escorts, plus another Shell-contracted support ship, the Guardsman.
The $290million, 266ft-diameter Kulluk is a conical-shaped mobile rig that began drilling a single exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea late last year. At the time of the incident, the rig was under tow to Everett, Washington State, for overhaul.
Kulluk lost its towline from the Aiviq on Thursday, December 27. A second towline was attached for a time, but then early Friday, December 28, all four engines on the Aiviq, a new ship, failed. On December 29, the stricken rig’s riding crew of 18 was taken off
The US Coast Guard sent the patrol cutter Alex Haley with a fresh towline for the Aiviq, which was still attached to the Kulluk, but the sheer mass of the ship and the drilling rig, combined with severe sea and wind conditions broke the connection and the heavy steel hawser became tangled in the cutter’s propeller and damaged it. Contaminated fuel appeared to be the cause of the Aiviq’s machinery failure.
USCG commander for Anchorage, Paul Mehler, said: “This type of operation is very normal. With the vessel the size of the Aiviq, with the capabilities of the Aiviq, with four engines, it was above and beyond what would be required.”
Expectation is that the Kulluk incident will be the subject of investigations by both the US authorities and Shell.
The Noble Discoverer is also the subject of investigations, having been originally been detained by the authorities in November.
Kip Wadlow, of the USCG, said the vessel had been on the Coast Guard’s radar because of an exhaust funnel fire that broke out while the rig was tied up in Unalaska in November. Then the Noble Discoverer headed for Seward, where Wadlow says it had problems with its propulsion system. Those two incidents, in such close proximity, prompted the USCG to send safety inspectors aboard.
The inspectors flagged 16 items, including threats to crew safety and the marine environment.