Sheltered from Gulf of Alaska, Shell drill rig will undergo inspections for damage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Inspectors will descend upon a remote Kodiak Island bay to investigate whether a Royal Dutch Shell LLC drilling vessel will need repairs after spending nearly a week aground.

The Kulluk, a circular barge with a diameter the length of three basketball courts, was pulled off the rocky bottom of waters near Alaska’s Sitkalidak Island on Sunday. It was moved Monday about 45 nautical miles to shelter in Kiliuda Bay, about 43 miles southwest of the city of Kodiak.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, the on-scene federal co-ordinator, was in the command centre when word came that the high tide and the 360-foot towing vessel Aiviq had combined to lift the vessel and pull it off the shallow, rocky bottom.

“I won’t say that I saw anyone high-fiving,” Mehler said. “I’ll say there was certainly a sense of relief, but recognizing now we have a lot more work to do.”

Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum said in a statement the company undertakes significant planning and preparation to make sure such incidents don’t occur.

“We’re very sorry it did,” he said. Shell has worked since the grounding to ensure a safe outcome, he said.

Shell used the Kulluk to drill last year in the Beaufort Sea. It used the drill ship Noble Discoverer in the Chukchi Sea. In spill response plans, the company said having two vessels on site meant one could come to the aid of the other to drill a relief well if there was a blowout.

“At this stage, it’s too early to gauge any impact on our ongoing exploration plans, but with the Kulluk now safely recovered, we’ll carry out a detailed assessment of the vessel to understand what those impacts might be,” Odom said.

The Kulluk’s next move will depend on a damage assessment, said Shell incident commander Sean Churchfield.

The vessel will remain in the bay until inspectors review its condition and the Coast Guard clears it to travel. Crutchfield said there’s no timetable for departure.

“Until we have that damage assessment, we’ll not be able to develop those plans,” Crutchfield said.

The assessment will include an underwater look at the hull by divers, remotely operated underwater vehicles or both, Churchfield said.

The massive effort to salvage the ship involved more than 730 people, according to the Unified Command, which included the Coast Guard, Shell and contractors involved in the tow and salvage operation.

Shell last week reported superficial damage above the deck and seawater that entered through open hatches. Water knocked out regular and emergency generators, but portable generators were put on board last week.

The Kulluk is 266 feet in diameter with a derrick in its middle and a funnel-shaped, reinforced steel hull that allows it to operate in ice. Its derrick rises 160 feet.

It was on its way to Seattle for upgrades and maintenance when it ran into trouble.

Its towing vessel, the Aiviq, on Dec. 27 lost its line to the Kulluk in heavy seas and hours later lost power to all four of its engines, possibly due to contaminated fuel.

Four reattached lines between the Aiviq or other vessels also broke in stormy weather. The Aiviq on New Year’s Eve again broke its line, leaving the Kulluk attached to the tugboat Alert.

Capt. Mehler said Monday the Alert also experienced a mechanical problem the night the Kulluk went aground. The agency is investigating.

“The understanding the night of the response was that when she was taking maximum power, there was an engine problem,” Mehler said. “They did recover that within 30 minutes. The details of that, I couldn’t answer yet.”

Inspections after the grounding determined that the Kulluk could be towed.

The Aiviq on Sunday reattached a tow line and increased tension as high tide approached, Crutchfield said.

“The Kulluk came off reasonably easy, would be my assessment,” he said.

The Kulluk was able to anchor shortly after noon in Kiliuda Bay. Three tugs were tethered to the vessel.