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Kulluk, Shell Oil's Arctic drilling rig aground on Sitkalidak Island, on the Alaskan coast.
The Kulluk, an Arctic drilling rig that ran aground on Sitkalidak Island, is free.
The Kulluk, the refurbished drilling rig that ran aground off southern Alaska last week on a maintenance trip from Royal Dutch Shell's Chukchi Sea oil lease, was refloated earlier Monday and towed toward safer waters to undergo inspection for damage. On New Year's Eve, the rig, fitted on a barge without its own propulsion system, snapped a tow-line in a storm and smashed into the rocks of Sitkalidak Island in the waters of southeast Alaska. The vessel was carrying some 138,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricating fluids. U.S. Coast Guard inspectors say there have been no leaks.

Shell decided to move the rig despite the storm that caused it to run aground because it was rushing to get it out of Alaskan waters before Jan. 1 to avoid millions of dollars in state taxes.

Moving the Kulluk is an important success for Shell, which had been relying on the rig to play a central role in its planned Arctic drilling programme this summer.

However, it is not yet clear how much damage it has suffered. Salvage teams reported that waves had damaged the topsides of the rig, and hatches had been breached allowing water into the rig’s generators.

But Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress notes that this "important success" for Shell comes amid continuing complaints from environmental advocates that drilling for oil in Arctic waters presents far more risks than the already risky off-shore drilling in more accessible areas such as the Gulf of Mexico. Some have sought to have Shell's Arctic oil leases in the area rescinded.

The latest incident is only one in a long list compiled here.

The problems were not exactly subject to the nobody-could-have-known syndrome. The Government Accountability Report last February concluded in a report that Shell's “dedicated capabilities do not completely mitigate some of the environmental and logistical risks associated with the remoteness and environment of the region.” [...]

Interior and Coast Guard officials said that [an oil] well containment response in Alaskan waters might face certain risks that could delay or impede a response to a blowout.

The Department of Interior nevertheless gave Shell permission in December 2011 to drill its Chukchi Sea leases off northeast Alaska well within the Arctic Circle. Drilling began last summer with two rigs operated by its contractor, Noble Corporation, the other being the Noble Discoverer. Of an investigation of that rig, CBS reported:
The Coast Guard conducted a routine marine safety inspection when Noble’s Discoverer arrived at a Seward, Alaska, port in late November. The inspection team found serious issues with the ship’s safety management system and pollution control systems. The inspectors also listed more than a dozen “discrepancies” which, sources tell CBS News, led them to call in the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) to determine if there were violations of federal law.

After the Coast Guard’s initial inspection of the Noble Discoverer, on Nov. 30, Capt. Paul Mehler, the Officer in Charge of Marine Inspection in Western Alaska issued a Port State Control Detention for the Noble Discoverer, effectively grounding the ship until safety violations were fixed. By Dec. 19, the ship was released from Port Detention but still remains in Seward for additional repairs.

As Lacey points out, this isn't the first time violations have been found on the Noble Discoverer. And the Kulluk has received three warnings of excess pollution and a score of warnings over maintenance problems.

If those seem minor, easy-to-solve matters, there's another far more serious one. In November, Seattle public radio station KUOW reported about a federal test in September of a piece of Shell's oil-spill equipment, the crucial oil containment dome:

The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale,” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at [the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] headquarters.

Then the dome sinks more than 120 feet. A safety buoy, basically a giant balloon, catches it before it hits bottom. About 12 hours later, the crew of the Challenger manages to get the dome back to the surface. “As bad as I thought,” Fesmire writes his BSEE colleague. “Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”

But Shell hopes to be back on the job when the winter ice melts enough for the corporation to continue drilling for the oil whose burning contributes to the accelerated melting of that ice.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 12:03 PM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots, Gulf Watchers Group, and Daily Kos.

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