I’ve suspected since early August that Shell Alaska was more interested in style than substance, and that their chain of command didn’t know how to deal creatively with either disruption, or with questions about the quality of their work. I also suspect others who have left their ship know this too.
It isn’t like this is unique to corporate cultures or to energy industry corporate cultures. Loyalty is something I’ve sought from my employees when I had them. But never at the expense of their being able to speak up about problems when they occur.
Shell Alaska, becoming desperate as people in its upper and inner workings saw their timeline charts becoming unrealistic, freaked out last summer. I got a glimpse of it on August 7th, 2012,when I showed up at the Bellingham, Washington dock where the Arctic Challenger was being modified for its role in the 2012 Arctic drilling season:
[I] requested a tour of the project. [The project director] flatly told me “No,” and I was not allowed to take any photographs of the vessel. He assured me that Shell Oil will be contacting me soon with more information.
The ambience of the work place there reminded me very much of projects in the past where I have worked that are seriously behind schedule and nervous of potential outcomes.
I was followed by private police until I left Bellingham.
I’m such a malicious physical threat, right? Never got the call, by the way. Nobody from Shell Alaska has answered any of my several calls, emails or other queries. Ever.
This week’s grounding of the Kulluk may have actually been inevitable. A new, untried design, the Aiviq, took at least one too many chances when deciding to not take shelter – there were no lack of good options – about a week ago, as weather reports rapidly worsened in the north Gulf of Alaska.
We don’t know yet what sorts of pressure the skipper of the tug might have been under as he pushed his tug into mounting sea, while towing an unwieldy pie dish the size of two football fields welded side-to-side, into waters notorious for messing with tugs and their tows.
Rick Steiner put it succinctly yesterday:
There is a lot to learn about this cascade of failures that put the Kulluk on the rocks. 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.
It does not. And Steiner, a longtime critic of Shell Alaska, is not alone.
Retired University of Alaska Prof. Steiner has been looking at this from the viewpoint of tens of thousands of hours of maritime experience. Retired University of Alaska Prof. Steve Aufrecht is looking at the grounding and response from the viewpoint of a highly regarded expert on public policy. Aufrecht published two articles Wednesday that clearly show his concern about how the Unified Command is handling the grounding.
The first, Keeping Track of the Kulluk – SEACOR Owns The Communications System, looks at the online architecture and corporate connections of the Unified Command’s web presence. Aufrecht isn’t as creeped out as me about the strange interconnections and conflicts of interest involved here, but he is concerned:
This feels a bit like Diebold running the voting machines.
I don’t think the industry that has caused the problem should be the one running the information system the public and the media have to use to get information about what’s going on.
I understand that government salary levels don’t allow them to compete with the private sector for the best and brightest computer folks. But when they contract out for private companies to run the website for something like this, they should get a company that has no interest in the content of the website. I suspect though that Shell and Noble suggested, and maybe are even paying for, the website. But there’s no such thing as a free website.
In his next post on the Kulluk debacle, Aufrecht looks at the propaganda-PR aspects of how Shell Alaska is trying to spin this fiasco - Shell’s Kulluk Response: Look How Great We Are!
Aufrecht tartly observes that Shell seems to be trying to portray the grounding of the Kulluk as some sort of victory for their hard-working, risk-taking team. He proceeds to shred a Tuesday Shell press release:
Shell’s response is like being at the funeral and talking only about how nice the flowers look.
The gist of paragraph 1: We were successful!
The gist of paragraph 2: We did great under terrible conditions
The gist of paragraph 3: Kulluk was a success and this is merely a learning experience so we can be more successful.
The gist of paragraph 4: This wasn’t about drilling and we’ve got the world’s best working on this. We’re confident!
Sadly, it is all worse than this.
There are now, according the Shell, over 600 people involved in this farce. Nothing exemplifies its pathetically comic aspects better than this picture the Unified Command has posted on the flickr page they created today, showing an enormous number of people busying themselves with nuttiness at the Unified Command HQ in a pricey convention room at the Marriott Hotel, all wearing what appear to be either life jackets, or vests that mimic them:
Is there anything remotely resembling common sense buried somewhere in Shell Alaska’s Arctic drilling project?
Update – Thursday 11:00 am Alaska Time:
A story posted this morning at the Alaska Dispatch confirms that Shell was in a rush to get the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer out of Alaska before January 1st, to avoid millions of dollars in taxes up here:
A move by Shell to avoid millions in Alaska state taxes may have backfired when the oil rig Kulluk ran aground Monday on Kodiak Island. The rig initially went adrift while it was being towed to a shipyard and tax shelter in Seattle. Instead, the vessel found itself literally stuck inside Alaska at the start of the new year.
A Shell spokesman last week confirmed an Unalaska elected official’s claim that the Dec. 21 departure of the Kulluk from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor involved taxation.
City councilor David Gregory said Shell would pay between $6 million and $7 million in state taxes if the Kulluk was still in Alaska on Jan. 1.
Shell’s Curtis Smith said in an email last week that the decision involved financial considerations. The rig had been moored in the Aleutian Islands port following several months on an oil exploration project in the Arctic Ocean.
“We are now planning to sail both vessels to the west coast for seasonal maintenance and inspections. Having said that, it’s fair to say that the current tax structure related to vessels of the type influenced the timing of our departure,” Smith said. “It would have cost Shell multiple millions to keep the rigs here,” he added, though he didn’t have an exact amount.
Gregory said the departure of the Kulluk took money away from local small businesses servicing the rig. He predicted the maritime mishap will prove very costly to the oil company.
“It will cost them more than that $6 million in taxes. Maybe they should have just stayed here,” Gregory said.
The Kulluk is still here, on the rocks. And the Noble Discover is all but impounded in Seward.