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Bruce Buls photo Kulluk grounding is a warning for Arctic exploration


January 17, 2013

Imagine what it must have been like on the Chouest OSV Aiviq during the storm that finally drove its tow, the drilling rig Kulluk, to ground in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year’s Eve. It’s bitterly cold. The seas are a monumental nightmare. It’s dark. It’s raining sideways in hurricane-force winds. There’s such constant, heavy motion that the strain finally snaps the tow line. New line rigged. Parted again. Damn, what else can go wrong?

Then the Aiviq’s main engines die, all four of them. Freak-out in the engine room. Bad fuel?

In response, a Coast Guard cutter attempts to tow both the Aiviq and the Kulluk only to have its tow line part and get tangled in one of its propellers, requiring it to limp back to Kodiak for repairs.

1.17.13_kulluk
 
Photo courtesy of Shell Alaska.

Meanwhile, Kodiak-based Coast Guard helicopters airlift the 18 men trapped onboard the Kulluk, one at a time.

It’s a miracle that no one was killed or seriously injured, no vessels sank and no fuel was spilled.

Still, this was a monster ordeal that has involved over 700 people and a long list of boats and aircraft. Even the Ocean Wave, Crowley Maritime’s new 11,000-hp tug, came up from the Gulf of Mexico to get in on the action. The conical drilling rig, which was finally pulled off the beach at Sitkalidak Island and towed to Kiliuda Bay on Kodiak Island, is said to be stable and will remain there until after tanner crab season. 

It now looks like Shell decided to tow the rig out of Alaska in late December to avoid paying some $6 million in taxes to the state that were due to be imposed on Jan. 1. Compared to the costs of the accident, that would have been a bargain.

But the total cost of the Kulluk incident go beyond these taxes, which I assume Shell will still have to pay, along with all the other expenses from the salvage and recovery. More than ever, the whole notion of drilling in the Arctic is up for reevaluation.

Yes, towing in the Gulf of Alaska isn’t drilling in the Beaufort Sea, but this and other setbacks do call into question Shell’s ability to overcome all the obstacles in offshore Arctic drilling. The Department of the Interior and the Coast Guard are investigating this incident and the findings could put a hold on further exploratory activity.

Shell must also wonder if sinking billions more into the Arctic is worth it. Christopher Helman, a Forbes magazine energy writer, recently wrote that “frontier exploration is the kind of thing only the world’s biggest oil companies have the balance sheet to stomach. But that doesn’t mean they should risk investors’ capital in doing so.” He says that Shell should be investing in other, less risky prospects.

We’ll all have to wait and see what Shell and the Interior Department decide, but the Kulluk grounding is reminder and a warning that nature can trump whatever plans people devise. As the Anchorage Daily News said, “The only safeguard … is unblinking, hard-nosed vigilance. No assumptions, everything checked and double-checked. Errors should be on the side of prudence and going slower. That’s the only sound way to explore in the Arctic, with exacting standards rigorously enforced.”

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