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Salvage operations begin on Shell's Arctic oil drilling rig Kulluk

The Shell Corporation oil drilling rig Kulluk remains grounded, pounded by rough seas off the coast of Alaska. Salvage teams have landed on the vessel. There are worries that release of contaminants may foul the sensitive coastline which includes the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge containing two endangered species, and a cultural and archeologically significant site - Refuge rock. Greenpeace alledges Shell's 2013 Arctic drilling program is 'on the brink' after a series of technical problems and failures with equipment this year.
Arial survey of Kulluk and life rafts - U.S. Coast Guard photo/ Zachary Painter
Arial survey of Kulluk and life rafts - U.S. Coast Guard photo/ Zachary Painter

It has already been revealed that Shell was moving the drilling rig from Alaska to Seattle, Washington to avoid about $6 million in property taxes that would be due on January 1st. Read more on the grounding at Climate IMC: Grounding of Shell drilling platform highlights dangers of Arctic Oil Drilling

There are approximately 143,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of hydraulic oil on board the Kulluk, an aging drill rig built in 1983. Weighing almost 28,000 tonnes, the rig had been due for scrapping before Shell bought it in 2005 and the company has since spent $292 million to upgrade the vessel.

At a press conference on January 3 (transcript), Sean Churchfield, the Incident Commander and the Operations Manager for Shell Alaska outlined the results of that initial salvage assessment:

"Today, we can confirm that the Kulluk remains upright and stable and there is no evidence of sheen in the vicinity," he said.

"Yesterday's assessment by the five-person team on board the Kulluk provided valuable information that is being used for recovery planning. Findings include: some wave damage to the topsides of the vessel, but a number of water-tight hatches have been breached causing water damage inside and the team has secured some of the open hatches. And that the emergency and service generators have been damaged. An Emergency Towing System has been placed on the deck. Specialized salvage equipment has been ordered and is en route."

The Kulluk ran aground near the Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge, where any spill would have terrible impacts on local wildlife. The area is home to at least two endangered species, as well as harbor seals, salmon and sea lions.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the fear on everyone's mind is of a substantial oil or diesel leak. To allay those fears Churchfield stated in the press conference, "Oil spill response equipment continues to be deployed as a contingency. Staging areas are being established in Seward, Kodiak and Old Harbor. Vessel-based response equipment is on scene with additional assets en route."

Any leak will be difficult to contain in heavy seas. Current sea conditions are showing a 10-12 foot swell with winds of 35 knots. Conditions may worsen over the weekend.

Shell Alaska (@Shell_Alaska) Vice President Pete Slaiby has since tweeted "We are encouraged at what we are seeing of the integrity of the hull." (tweet) and "There was damage done to the electrical system on board, but by far the structure looks good." (tweet)

The recovery operation already involves over 600 people, with the US Coast Guard has initiated an investigation of the incident and is flying in investigators from the Coast Guard's Center of Excellence in New Orleans to conduct the Coast Guard Marine Casualty Investigation. Captain Paul Mehler, the Coast Guard Federal On Scene Coordinator, has committed the results of the investigation being made public.

At the press conference it was revealed that the Kulluk is grounded near a culturally significant site: about a mile from Refuge Rock. Duane Dvorak from the Kodiak communities outlined the significance to Native landowners and the people at Old Harbour, the closest community:

"That is probably the most culturally significant place for the Old Harbor community. ...there was a massacre of Old Harbor Natives when the Russian colonization of Kodiak had occurred. I don't know all of the historical significance — or excuse me, all the details, but that was a place where they typically would seek refuge when they were at conflict with other Native communities but with the firearms of the Russian/American company to deal with, it was an unfair situation but it is something that's been passed down to (inaudible) traditional for many generations. Only in the past 10 years has archeological evidence been found to validate the exact location of this place and to document that."

Shell's Arctic Oil drilling program incompetent: Greenpeace

Greenpeace have responded saying the grounding of the Kulluk demonstrates Shell's ongoing incompetence in Arctic Oil drilling Operations.

Greenpeace USA Deputy Campaigns Director Dan Howells said in a statement:

"The rocks grinding against the Kulluk's hull are damaging Shell's corporate reputation just as badly as the rig itself. It's hard to see how this company can salvage this rig, repair it and regain the public's trust in time for the 2013 drilling season.

"Shell's US$4.5 billion Arctic gamble is looking like a serious mistake, and should act as a warning to other companies looking to drill in this incredibly hostile environment.

"The US administration should stop licensing Arctic drilling and start protecting America's coastline from Shell's incompetence. Oil companies cannot operate safely in the pristine Arctic, where both the risks and the impacts of any industrial accident are too great to bear."

"Shell cannot be allowed to continue its reckless drilling programme. Over two million people have already joined a campaign to protect the Arctic from destructive industry and Shell's latest mishap confirms their worst fears. The US government must finally stand up and take action,"

It has already been revealed that Shell was moving the drilling rig from Alaska to Seattle, Washington to avoid about $6 million in property taxes that would be due on January 1st.

The Greenpeace statement documented several incidents this year in Shell's Arctic drilling program. These include:

  • In July: Shell admits that it can't meet US government air pollution targets for its Arctic drilling fleet, and asks for an exemption. (La Times story)
  • Also in July, Shell's other drilling vessel Noble Discoverer slips anchor and runs aground in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. (CNN story)
  • In August: the Arctic Challenger, a barge built by Shell to contain oil spilled during any accidents in the Arctic, is cited by Federal authorities for four illegal discharges of hydraulic fluid during preparation work for the summer drilling season. (LA Times Story)
  • In November the Noble Discoverer engine catches fire in the port of Dutch Harbour, Alaska (Alaska Despatch story)
  • In early December FOIAs reveal that Shell's sub-sea capping stack was "crushed like a beer can" during testing. (KUOW.org story)


  • Kulluk Tow Incident - Transcript From News Briefing - Jan. 3
  • Greenpeace media release, 4 January 2013 - Shell's 2013 Arctic drilling program 'on the brink' after grounded drilling rig incident: Greenpeace (Email)
  • Image from Flickr - Jan 3, 2013 - Arial survey of Kulluk and life rafts - U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter. Caption: Three life rafts (two pictured) sit on the beach adjacent to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. The Kulluk grounded after many efforts by tug vessel crews and Coast Guard crews to move the vessel to safe harbor during a winter storm during a tow from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to Everett, Wash.

is a citizen journalist from Melbourne Australia who has been writing on climate change, science and climate protests since 2004. This article was originally published at San Fransisco Bay Area Indymedia and on his blog.