Kulluk on the beach 01:01:13

The marine weather forecast seemed good enough for mid or late December, when the oceangoing tug Aiviq began towing the cumbersome giant oil drilling platform Kulluk out of Dutch Harbor on the eve of the Winter Solstice:

The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor, a staging port for Shell, the afternoon of Dec. 21 under tow by the Aiviq, headed to the Seattle area for off-season maintenance. The weather forecast for the next few days was typical, even a bit tame, for winter along the Aleutian chain and into the Gulf of Alaska: Winds of 17 to 35 mph, seas of 7 to 15 feet.

“Toward Kodiak Island, there was nothing of real significance,” said Sam Albanese, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “It was a pretty benign forecast.”

But by the afternoon of Dec. 25, the outlook had shifted from a prediction of more gale-force winds to a near storm at sea with winds topping 50 mph, he said.

And that’s what hit the Kulluk and the Aiviq last week.

By Saturday night, the winds were near hurricane force, the Coast Guard said.

Things got worse, as the lines attached from the tug to the rig parted on four occasions, between Thursday evening and Monday night:

As the Kulluk headed to the Lower 48 on Thursday, the tow shackle failed between the drilling rig and its tug — Shell’s Aiviq. A second towline was attached, but later the engines on the Aiviq failed, leaving the two vessels adrift at sea. The 266-foot diameter Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own.

Another ship, the Coast Guard’s 282-foot cutter Alex Haley, was dispatched to reconnect the towline. However, 35-foot seas and 40-mph winds, coupled with the size of the vessels, caused the towline to disconnect, and the Haley retreated to Kodiak for repairs. On Sunday, the Kulluk’s 18-person crew was evacuated.

Then, after dispatching yet another ship — the Prince William Sound-based Alert tug — the Kulluk was reconnected to its tow vessels early Monday. Later Monday morning, the Aiviq tug also re-established its connection to the Kulluk about 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island, but lost its link later in the day.

By Monday evening, the Coast Guard was planning to tow the Kulluk to safe harbor at Port Hobron on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, as well as deploy several technicians on board the Kulluk to inspect the tow lines on the rig.

As the weather worsened, the Alert tug’s crew, which was struggling to tow the Kulluk on its own, was order to separate from the rig. By 9 p.m., the Kulluk was sitting in the surf at rocky Ocean Bay, its draft having run aground.

Over night, Monday-Tuesday, the worst of the present storm seemed to play out, but there is still a large swell coming onshore at the place of the stranding.

Within two hours of the grounding, the so-called Unified Command, comprising Shell Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Noble Drilling, held a press notification event at the expanded response headquarters, in Anchorage’s Marriot Hotel.  About 250 people are involved in the Anchorage-based efforts.  In a conference convened Tuesday at 2:00 local time, again at the Anchorage Marriott, it was claimed that over 500 people are currently involved in facets of the response.

As events have unfolded and been made public Tuesday, there have been several responses from the Alaska environmental community, from the head of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Ed Markey, but nothing substantive from Alaska’s U.S. Congressional delegation, who have been totally supportive of Shell’s Arctic drilling venture.

This morning Markey said “the accident revealed that ‘drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.’”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski made a brief comment:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, praised “the heroism displayed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Shell personnel and other responders.”

“The focus now needs to be on securing the Kulluk and protecting local residents and the environment from potential fuel spills,” Murkowski said.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich hasn’t made a statement yet that I’m aware of, but last summer, he toured the rig before it left Seattle for the far North:

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich today got a first-hand look at the Kulluk Conical Drilling Unit as it is getting ready for work this summer in the Beaufort Sea.

The Kulluk is owned by Shell and is one of the few ice-class drilling rigs in the world. Last July it was moved from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to the VIGOR shipyard in Seattle for maintenance and modifications to get ready of the 2012 offshore drilling season in Alaska’s Arctic.

“It’s impressive to see this rig first-hand and know it will be hard at work in the Beaufort this summer,” Begich said. “The focus this season is on safety. I am confident Shell will do this right, and it’s clear they have tools to do just that.”

We’ll see soon what this incident does to Sen. Begich’s perception of Shell Alaska’s toolkit.

Alaska environmental activist and retired University of Alaska professor, Rick Steiner, noted that a number of errors were made by Shell Alaska’s agents when weather worsened last week:

Rick Steiner, a former professor with the University of Alaska who is now an environmental consultant through Oasis Earth, has been raising questions for weeks about the lack of emergency towing resources along Shell’s route, including corresponding directly with the Coast Guard on the matter.

There is a lot to learn about this cascade of failures that put the Kulluk on the rocks,” Steiner said in an e-mail early Tuesday. It appears “the rig was not adequately equipped for heavy weather towing, they should have called the Alert sooner, and tried to shelter sooner.  Clearly Shell should have thought through contingencies for a loss of tow in heavy weather, and they didn’t.  The weather encountered is not extreme and unexpected in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter – it’s just winter. This doesn’t inspire confidence in their safety and contingency planning capability.”

The 2:00AKST press briefing has just concluded, with the Shell Alaska representative at the conference hastily shutting off questions from local and national media.  They pointedly took only one question from those of us who attended telephonically – from a CNN reporter.  He wondered how different the Coast Guard response might have been to a major emergency in the area Shell hopes to exploit, rather than off Kodiak, where the largest Coast Guard base in Alaska is situated.  Predictably, there was no answer.

Here are links to both Shell Alaska and Kulluk Tow Response twitter pages.  You can read their sanitized version of events, which I am not going recount here.

Once the Holiday period is over, there will be more interest drawn to this grounding by local, national and global environmental groups.  Greenpeace, which has been the most vocal, demonstrative and confrontative international environmental group, regarding Shell’s Arctic drilling, hasn’t yet made a statement.

As an interesting aside, in the first of my growing set of articles for Firedoglake on Shell’s Arctic drilling fiasco, back in July, it is strange that the vessel I wrote about then wasn’t the Kulluk, but another one of their ill-starred fleet – “it was not considered to be a “good luck” barge in fleet scuttlebutt.”

Meanwhile, the Kulluk may be hit by another storm by Friday or Saturday:

A WEATHER FRONT ALONG THE NORTH GULF COAST WILL DISSIPATE THIS EVENING. ANOTHER WEATHER FRONT WILL MOVE INTO THE WESTERN GULF WED AFTERNOON AND STALL OVER THE CENTRAL GULF THROUGH THU AFTERNOON.

Shell claimed at the start of the aborted 2012 drill season to have spent about $4.5 billion on its Alaska Arctic offshore drilling project.  This season was quite expensive too, perhaps costing over a billion dollars before this catastrophe.  Cleaning up its mess is going to be very expensive.  And fighting renewed efforts to keep Shell out of Alaska waters may cost more scores of millions.