Kulluk aground

Back on July 27th, when I first started covering aspects of Shell Alaska’s plans to begin offshore drilling off our coasts up here, I already had questions.  That day, I wrote, reminiscing about what I knew of the spill response barge Arctic Challenger back in 1982 :

Crew members of towing tugs had been injured over the five years since the barge’s completion, and it was not considered to be a “good luck” barge in fleet scuttlebutt. It never really found a niche after the Sealifts were over.  It languished, being shuttled from Seattle to the Gulf of Mexico to Coos Bay, Oregon, where it stayed for a long time.

The next week I went to Bellingham harbor, where the barge was being outfitted with a new, untried piece of equipment.  Shell didn’t answer my calls for an appointment request, so I showed up at 7:45 am at the security office, and managed to get inside two layers of security before a gatekeeper decided I had the look of somebody who might be asking too many questions.  He was right.

Shell refused to let me photograph or even view the work being done on the Challenger and its containment dome apparatus.  Instead:

[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.

Although Shell wasn’t ready to share their work with me, it proved impossible to hide either the vessel’s dismal history or its shortcomings from the public.  Longtime Alaska reporter, Alex De Marban, wrote in mid-August, that in 2007, while rusting away in Long Beach, California harbor, the Arctic Challenger attracted so many birds, it was temporarily declared a “bird sanctuary” for Caspian terns:

At one point, hundreds of Caspian terns, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, ravens, crows and even an owl turned the 300-foot barge into a giant’s bird nest, coating the deck with bird dung and other gunk. That was in California’s Long Beach Harbor in 2007, where the downtrodden vessel became a bit of a media celebrity as wildlife regulators raced to save the protected terns and their chicks.

De Marban didn’t have many questions in mid-August, but he noted that others did:

The media has zeroed in on the slow progress. Everyone from Alaska blogger Phil Munger, who said he was on a tug that once helped tow the Challenger, to the nation’s largest papers are asking questions. The Los Angeles Times recently zeroed in on a minor fine stemming from small discharges into the water during the vessel’s retrofit at the shipyard in Bellingham.

Three weeks later, the barge’s containment dome system Shell had been so highly vaunting failed spectacularly:

According to BSEE internal emails obtained by KUOW, the containment dome test was supposed to take about a day. That estimate proved to be wildly optimistic.

Day 1: The Arctic Challenger’s massive steel dome comes unhooked from some of the winches used to maneuver it underwater. The crew has to recover it and repair it.

Day 2: A remote-controlled submarine gets tangled in some anchor lines. It takes divers about 24 hours to rescue the submarine.

Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. 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 BSEE 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.”

That was it for not only the Arctic Challenger‘s hopes for a 2012 drilling season, but for Shell’s.  Without the Challenger’s cool stuff, Shell was not allowed by the Department of the Interior to drill all the way down to oil under the Arctic ocean bottoms.

Shell’s drill rigs Noble Discoverer and Kulluk were already deployed in the Arctic and were allowed to drill down almost to where the oil reservoirs are, and to then cap the holes.  They had to stop periodically as giant ice floes (probably products of new dynamics in those areas resulting from global warming) and equipment problems plagued the project.

In late October and into early November, the project wound down.  Both drilling rigs headed to Dutch Harbor, the most important staging port in western Alaska.

In Dutch Harbor, they underwent maintenance and readied to get out of Alaska before the end of the year, to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes:

Officials with Royal Dutch Shell admit the company was trying to avoid $7 million in Alaska taxes by moving an oil rig to Seattle for maintenance.

The rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska. That leaves the company, which has headquarters in the Netherlands and Britain, liable for the tax as well as millions more to repair the rig and to reimburse the U.S. and Alaska governments for the cost of responding to the accident.

The company would not have had to pay equipment tax if the rig, the Kulluk, had been out of Alaska at the end of the year, The Independent, a London newspaper, said. But the grounding during a bad storm left it still in Alaskan waters on Dec. 31.

“It’s fair to say that the current tax structure related to vessels of the type influenced the timing of our departure.”

But neither vessel was able to get out of the state successfully by January 1st.  The first to run afoul – with the U.S. Coast Guard – was the Noble Discoverer.  When major deficiencies showed up during a Coast Guard inspection in Seward in November, where the rig had pulled in with troubles, it was impounded:

T]he U.S. Coast Guard has launched a criminal investigation into the activities of a 572-foot oil drilling and exploration ship run by the Noble corporation, a group contracted by Royal Dutch Shell to search for oil in the arctic. Noble owned the Kulluk drilling rig that ran aground in rough Alaskan seas.

The revelation that another Noble ship working for Shell may have been operating with serious safety and pollution control problems bolstered allegations from environmental activists that the oil industry is unable to conduct safe oil drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean.

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.

Sources told CBS News that when criminal investigators arrived, the Noble Discoverer’s crew had been provided with lawyers and declined to be interviewed.

The vessel was pulled out of impoundment by late November or early December, but, interestingly, it is still in Seward.

And then came the New Year’s Eve Kulluk catastrophe.  With it – still playing out – comes a host of questions:

1.  Why didn’t the Aiviq and tow divert to safe waters as the storm worsened on December 27th?  They had multiple options along Kodiak Island’s west coast.

2.  What kind of towing winch system does the Aiviq possess?  Shell’s agreement with the U.S. government to drill in Alaska’s Arctic waters requires the Aiviq to have the “Best Available Technology” aboard for its stated or usual missions.

Alaska maritime environmentalist icon Rick Steiner began investigating this soon after the incident unravelled.  Here’s a bit of his correspondence with me and with the “Unified Command” on the issue:

From : Rick Steiner
Date : 01/02/13 12:21

Does the Aiviq have a dynamic tensioning Markey Automative Render and
Recovery Winch?

From : Jennifer Browne (jennifer)
Date : 01/04/13 13:42

Hi Rick,

Thanks again for your question. The Aiviq is not equipped with a
dynamic tensioning Markey Automative Render and Recovery Winch.

Kind regards,

the next day Rick wrote to me:

I’ll forward to you what I get from Markey folks, when they send….but it is possible that this wonderful vessel, the Aiviq, simply had the wrong winch!


then this:

From : Rick  Steiner
Date : 01/05/13 09:55Folks –Thanks for confirming that the Aiviq does not have a Markey AR&R towing winch.I would appreciate you finding out, and letting me know asap, exactly what towing winch the Aiviq is fitted with.

Thanks very much.

And the Unified Command’s response:

The following inquiry was submitted to Kulluk Tow Incident on 01/05/13 09:55 (1105851):
From : Jennifer Browne
Date : 01/05/13 15:20Hi Rick,Thanks again for your interest.  Per the direction of the Unified Command, this information has not been released publicly.Thanks,

Not many people are familiar with how important this is.  But it is very important.

I suspect that the Aiviq‘s main towing winch will be found to be the main reason the tow failed again and again the last three days of 2012.

Among those asking a host of questions will be some of the minority members in the U.S. Congress:

 Calls for federal scrutiny of Royal Dutch Shell PLC drilling operations in Arctic waters swelled Thursday with a request for a formal investigation by members of Congress.

The House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition called on the Interior Department and the Coast Guard to jointly investigate the New Year’s Eve grounding of the Shell drilling vessel Kulluk on a remote Gulf of Alaska island, and a previous incident connected to Arctic offshore drilling operations in 2012.

The coalition is made up of 45 House Democrats.

“The recent grounding of Shell’s Kulluk oil rig amplifies the risks of drilling in the Arctic,” they said in a joint statement. “This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders, including the near-grounding of another of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs, the 47-year-old Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor and the failure of its blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, in lake-like conditions.”

The coalition believes these “serious incidents” warrant thorough investigation, the statement said.

Alaska’s national congressional delegation is notably NOT calling for an investigation.  Why?  Maybe part of the question can be answered by this:

Since 2010, family members of the company [which built the Aiviq and another Shell Alaska vessel attending the Kullik disaster] with humble beginnings that is now believed to be worth billions, have spent at least $170,000 in campaign donations to Alaska’s Congressional delegation.

• U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has already landed more than $30,000 from Chouest for his 2014 re-election bid.

• Sen. Lisa Murkowski landed $40,800 from the company for her 2010 re-election efforts.

• Rep. Don Young pulled in $32,000 during the same election cycle – and for 2012, the family supported him with $66,400 in donations.

Those are the minimum amounts only from donors with the last name of Chouest, and they don’t include what the company spent on lobbying. Edison Chouest also owns several other companies that may have donated separately.

As of Friday afternoon, Murkowski was the only one of the three to have even mentioned the Kulluk incident on congressional websites, and Murkowski only noted she was “closely monitoring the developing situation,” without mentioning Edison Chouest. Gov. Sean Parnell hadn’t yet mentioned the Kulluk incident on his site, either.

Both Rick Steiner and I will be making efforts this coming week to encourage Alaska Democrats to get Sen. Begich to open a U.S. Senate investigation or hearings on this gigantic set of troubling, unanswered questions:

1.  Given what we’ve learned, is the Arctic Challenger actually capable of doing its job in this project?

2.  Does the Aiviq actually contain the best available equipment for all emergency or working situations?

3.  Why is the Noble Discoverer still berthed in Seward, more than a month after it has been cleared to move on south? (I suspect undisclosed legal issues having to do with what the crew knows)

4.  Will Shell Alaska’s liability be capped at $28 million, as per the 1990 Oil Pollution Act? (It appears to me more than that has already been spent by Crowley, other independent responders, the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska, and the giant fucking pie pan is still rolling on the rocky beach)

Those are just for starters.

Do you have more?

Photo by US Coast Guard, public domain