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List of Questions on Shell’s Alaska 2012 Arctic Drilling Fiasco Grows Longer by the Day

2:18 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

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: Read the rest of this entry →

Shell Drill Rig Kulluk Breaks Tow Lines – Adrift Again Sunday Night – Updated X 3

10:18 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk adrift

I.  Early Sunday evening (Alaska time) the Shell-leased Arctic drilling rig Kulluk parted the lines from both tugs which had again begun towing the vessel early Sunday.  In heavy seas, with all crew having been evacuated late Saturday, the rig is unmanned.  It is trailing parts of the parted lines.  However, with no hands aboard the rig to man winches, prospects for recovering the rig in worsening seas are both dim and highly dangerous.  The Kulluk has been reported this evening to be only 20 miles to the south of the nearest rocks on Kodiak’s coasts, with winds and waves pushing it toward probable demise.  Lisa Demer, of the  Anchorage Daily News, reports it in a slightly different position:

With no towlines securing it in place, the crew-less Kulluk is drifting about 20 miles south of Sitkinak Island, part of the Trinity Islands, south of Kodiak. Smith said early Sunday evening that he had not yet been briefed on how many hours it would take the Kulluk to reach shore if it continues adrift. A number of variables, including currents and wind speed, would affect when and where it hit, if it came to that, he noted. He said he would provide the information when he gets it.

The superstructure is massive, adding a lot of sail to the wind’s effect.

Earlier today, I telephonically attended a hastily convened press conference that was held in Anchorage’s Frontier Building.  Asking questions at the presser were Lisa Demer from the Anchorage Daily News, and Rachel D’Oro, from the Associated Press.  Both had just filed stories on the press event when the news of further disaster became known, and both have updated their stories within the past hour.

From Demer’s updated story, it appears the lines parted almost exactly when the 1:00 pm AST press conference started:

An unmanned mobile oil drilling rig owned by Royal Dutch Shell is adrift — again — south of Kodiak Island after it lost towlines Sunday afternoon from two vessels trying to hold it in place against what have been pummeling winds and high seas, according to incident management leaders.

A team of 250 people from the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell, and one of its contractors was hunkered down Sunday, mainly in Midtown Anchorage’s Frontier Building, trying to resolve the ongoing crisis with the Shell-owned drilling rig, the Kulluk.

Before the latest turn for the worse, representatives of the Coast Guard, Shell and the state Department of Environmental Conservation told reporters in a briefing early Sunday afternoon that the situation was critical, but under control.

Then tow lines from the Aiviq and a second support vessel, the Nanuq “separated,” the joint command team said in a statement sent out at about 4:30 p.m. The setback happened sometime after 1 p.m., just as commanders were briefing news media on what appeared at that point to be a successful response after a series of failures. They didn’t yet know the towlines had broken free, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith, who is part of the unified incident command team.

Demer also noted the somewhat forced optimism I described in my comments posted at firedoglake during the conference.

[Please do not use Associated Press sources on MyFDL. -MyFDL Editor]

II.  Shell and its contractors deserve no praise whatsoever.  I’ve been following the deployments, misuse, problems, fiascos and clusterfucks of the vessels of this operation since July.  If there is but one clear message Shell has sent this year regarding its ability to safely drill off Alaska’s Arctic Coast, it is this – We are a major disaster waiting to happen! 

Lisa Demer expands on this, perhaps unintentionally:

The incident team also must find a safe harbor for the Aiviq, as well as the Kulluk, to undergo inspections and possible repairs before heading south to Everett, Wash., where the Kulluk had been headed for off-season maintenance before the troubles began.

……

Shell has had a difficult experience as it tries to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic. It couldn’t drill to oil-rich zones because its novel oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing. Its other drilling rig, a converted log carrier called the Noble Discoverer, recently was cited by the Coast Guard for problems with safety and pollution discharge equipment. Mehler ordered it held in Seward while the most serious issues were addressed. While the ship now is free to leave for Seattle, it remains docked in Seward because it is waiting for escort vessels now working on the Kulluk situation, Smith said.

The other main element of Shell’s hapless Arctic drilling fleet that has made a lot of news in 2012 is the icebreaking barge Arctic Challenger, which didn’t even make it to Northern waters this season because of the disastrous testing failure of its capping dome unit in Puget Sound, Washington in early September, on a perfectly calm, sunny, waveless day.  It is beginning to look like a good thing that the Arctic Challenger didn’t make it up to Alaska, adding a third vessel to Shell’s already over-stretched capabilities for safe movement in risky waters.

When you add this whole package of failure after failure up, it equals incompetence at best, criminally negligent planning and engineering lapses at worst.

I’ll try to keep you updated here.  Not hoping for the Kulluk ending up in the rocks, but I am hoping that this incident wakes up a lot of people.  The only elected official to hold a hearing on Shell’s lapses yet has been Alaska U.S. Senator Mark Begich.  My usual contact with Mark’s office is in the hospital after multiple bypass surgery (praying for you, Mary!), so I’ll find out elsewhere if he is as outraged as we all should be about this serial malfeasance from Shell and its agents.

Update – Monday 9:30 am Alaska Time:  The Aiviq and Alert managed to grab on to the broken lines just after midnight Alaska Time:

Anchorage, Alaska – The Kulluk drilling vessel is under tow by the Aiviq and tug Alert. All three vessels are currently located about 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island.

At approximately 12:45 a.m., Monday, Dec. 31, the Alert was able to secure the 400-foot line that was previously the tow line used by the Aiviq. The Alert successfully added tension to the line to test its ability to hold.

Later in the morning, the Aiviq also restored its connection to the Kulluk.

Ensuring the safety of personnel and protecting the area’s environment continue to be of the utmost importance.

Difficult weather conditions are anticipated to continue over the next several days. Unified Command is evaluating all potential options to further secure the vessel until the weather clears.

Update – 3:30 pm Alaska time:  

from KTUU TV in Anchorage:

Crews have reestablished tow lines for an unmanned Shell drill unit and said Monday afternoon that it will tow it Port Hobron on the southeast side of Kodiak Island.

Port Hobron is a well protected bay on the northern side of Sitkalidak Island, itself off of the southern end of Kodiak Island.  Sitkalidof is uninhabited, at least year-round.  The closest community to Port Hobron is the Alaska Native village of Old Harbor, which is on the Kodiak Island side of Sitkalidof Straits.  There is a decent airport at Old Harbor.

The marine weather forecast for tonight for waters south of Kodiak Island call for 30-foot seas and winds of 55 knots or more, which will be as bad as the Kulluk has experienced.

Update – 8:40 pm Alaska Time:

The Kulluk has again broken free.  This time it is four miles from the rocky Kodiak Island coast.  I’ve posted a new entry.  I suspect there will be updates through tonight.

This is looking very bad.

Coast Guard Helicopter Rescues Crew From Imperiled Shell Arctic Drilling Rig – Updated

11:44 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Here is a short video released late Saturday by the U.S. Coast Guard, showing part of the helicopter rescue of crewmen from the drilling platform Kulluk.  The rig has been imperiled by multiple simultaneous engine failures aboard the oceangoing tug Aiviq, which was towing the rig from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to Puget Sound, for modifications, repairs and winter berthing.

Shown in the video are the Kulluk – the round vessel with a tall central tower, the Nanuq – the long, slender vessel, and the Aiviq – the vessel with the helicopter platform over its bow.  The tug Guardsman, not shown in the video, is plotted on MarineTraffic.com as being close by.  All four vessels haven’t moved much since they grouped together yesterday morning. Rather than get close to the shore and seek shelter from the ongoing major winter storm, as they had planned yesterday, they have decided to put as many miles as possible between the rig and the rocks.

Here’s from an Alaska news report:

“It’s precautionary measure. They weren’t in any immediate danger,” Mosley said. “As this continued to unfold, they just wanted to mitigate any potential issues with that crew onboard.”

Coast Guard helicopters were also able to deliver a ton of engine parts and technicians to the Aiviq, and the ship’s crew had two of its four engines up and running by Saturday morning, Shell said.

What started as 20-foot seas and 40 mph wind built to 35-foot seas and gusts to more than 50 mph, the Coast Guard said.

The weather and the combined weight of the Kulluk and Aiviq were too much for the tugboat Guardsman, which was unable to stop the vessels from drifting. By 5:30 a.m. Saturday, its towline had also broken free, the Coast Guard said. Saturday morning, the Kulluk was about 27 miles from the Trinity Islands and drifting at a rate that would have had it hitting the islands in as little as 12 hours, Mosley told the Associated Press.

“We don’t want it to go aground,” he said. “When a vessel goes aground, it’s directly played upon by the waves hitting it and having it hit something solid.”

In what Shell spokesman Curtis Smith described as “cascading assets into the theater,” another Shell-contracted ship, the Nanuq, had been sent from Seward at the first sign of trouble. It arrived Saturday morning. The Aiviq soon had all four of its engines running, and with the Nanuq’s help, was towing the Kulluk farther out to sea to the southeast late Saturday, Smith said. The plan was to avoid more bad weather and the worst-case scenario that the vessels could again drift toward land, he said.

And here is the current marine forecast for Kodiak Island waters:

Storm Warning

COASTAL WATERS FORECAST FOR THE NORTHERN GULF OF ALASKA COAST UP TO 100 NM OUT INCLUDING KODIAK ISLAND AND COOK INLET. WIND FORECASTS REFLECT THE PREDOMINANT SPEED AND DIRECTION EXPECTED. SEA FORECASTS REPRESENT AN AVERAGE OF THE HIGHEST ONE-THIRD OF THE COMBINED WIND WAVE AND SWELL HEIGHT.
Synopsis…A 952 MB LOW 175 NM S OF KODIAK MOVES TO BRISTOL BAY MIDDAY SUNDAY AT 959 MB…THEN WEAKENS AS IT TRACKS ALONG THE SOUTHWEST COAST THROUGH MON MORNING. ANOTHER PACIFIC LOW TRACKS TO 480 NM S OF KODIAK AT 964 MB MON MORNING…THEN MOVES TO 120 NM SE OF CHIGNIK AT 962 MB LATE MON NIGHT.

Today: SE wind 40 kt increasing to S 50 kt in the afternoon. Seas 21 ft building to 28 ft in the afternoon. Rain.

Tonight: S wind 45 kt diminishing to 30 kt after midnight. Seas 22 ft subsiding to 15 ft after midnight. Rain and snow.

Mon: SE wind 25 kt becoming E 45 kt in the afternoon. Seas 15 ft. Rain and snow.

Mon Night: SE wind 50 kt. Seas 26 ft.

Tue: S wind 50 kt. Seas 30 ft.

As you can see, today is rougher than yesterday (I published yesterday’s forecast in an earlier post). The seas will come down on Monday, but another storm will hit Tuesday, perhaps worse then the one they are enduring.

It appears the tugs and barge are on a course of 200 degrees, with speeds averaging about 1.8 knots, which would put them about 90 miles further from shore when Tuesday’s storm hits.

So far, nobody has been reported to have been injured or lost.  Lets hope it remains that way.

So this is how Shell Oil rings out the year during which they hoped to start extracting oil from under the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Update – Sunday 2:00 pm:  The so-called “Unified Command”  held a press conference in Anchorage at 1:00 pm Alaska time today.  I attended telephonically.  The Unified Command is the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Shell Alaska and Edison Chouest Offshore (owner of the drilling rig Kulluk).  They are maintaining a “Joint Information Center” during the ongoing emergency.  The Alaska DEC representative on the Joint Command, Steve Russell, described the Unified Command, saying how hard the State of AK worked, developing the “Unified command.”

I posted comments at this diary throughout the conference.  Here’s my summary:

What I got out of this press conference was:

1). Aiviq and Kulluk walked into this storm blithely.

2). At least two people have been injured.

3). USCG does not want to talk about why their cutter left the scene early Saturday.

4). Shell is backing off from earlier descriptions of the multiple simultaneous engine failures on the Aiviq being caused by fuel contamination. No mention in the presser of the USCG offloading “900 pounds” worth of new fuel injectors onto drifting Aiviq for those engines Saturday. This may be more important than is readily apparent.

5). There is nobody aboard the drill rig.

Should Tuesday’s storm part the lines again, like Friday’s did, it will be extremely dangerous to get anyone back aboard. Pumps are on automatic, but to re-hook for a tow, winches would have to be manned on the rig. No wonder they are putting as many miles as possible between them and the rocky coast of Kodiak Island eh?

Shell Oil’s Arctic Drilling Rig’s Tug in Gulf of Alaska Emergency – Shell Considering Evacuating Kulluk Crew

2:04 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Where are Shell's distreesed vessels?

On Thursday, Shell Oil Alaska announced its unpowered drilling rig Kulluk, being towed south from Dutch Harbor to Puget Sound, was in distress, due to complete engine failures on its towing vessel, the MV Aiviq:

The Coast Guard prepared Saturday to evacuate an 18-member crew of a Shell drill ship that was stalled in rough Gulf of Alaska waters, south of Kodiak Island.

The Coast Guard requested that the crew evacuate the Kulluk for safety reasons. The guard said it would have no more details until the evacuation was completed.

The Royal Dutch Shell PLC drill ship was being towed Thursday from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle when problems arose. By Friday, the ship was stalled in the Gulf with a towing vessel whose engines had failed. A relief tug was sent out on 20-foot waves and winds of 40 mph to rescue the ships.

The Kulluk has no propulsion system. The 360-foot Aiviq was towing the drill ship when the Aiviq reported multiple engine failures. The Aiviq crew was able to restart one engine, and with generators had enough power to maintain its position. Two vessels under contract to Shell left Seward when the trouble began — the tug Guardsman and The Nanuq, Shell’s principal oil spill response vessel.

This morning, Shell released the following:

The Shell-contracted response vessel, the Nanuq, arrived on scene at 6:30 a.m. and is assessing the situation to safely conduct a tow with the Kulluk.

Essential equipment parts were delivered to the Aiviq by two Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak-based MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews Saturday morning. Repairs are commencing aboard the Aiviq, and a second engine has been brought online.

Precautionary evacuation efforts are being evaluated to remove all non-essential personnel from the Kulluk.

“Our main priority remains the safety of all crews involved in this situation,” said Capt. Paul Mehler III, commander, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. “To help ensure safety of all involved, we have directed multiple Coast Guard assets to the area, including the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory, our Kodiak based HC-130s and Jayhawk helicopter aircrews.”

The Hickory is scheduled to arrive in the area Saturday afternoon.

The marine weather forecast for the waters in which this is happening is not promising:

Storm Warning

COASTAL WATERS FORECAST FOR THE NORTHERN GULF OF ALASKA COAST UP TO 100 NM OUT INCLUDING KODIAK ISLAND AND COOK INLET. WIND FORECASTS REFLECT THE PREDOMINANT SPEED AND DIRECTION EXPECTED. SEA FORECASTS REPRESENT AN AVERAGE OF THE HIGHEST ONE-THIRD OF THE COMBINED WIND WAVE AND SWELL HEIGHT.
Synopsis…A WEATHER FRONT OVER THE NORTH GULF COAST WILL DISSIPATE SAT MORNING. A PACIFIC LOW WILL STRENGTHEN TO 954 MB 320 NM SOUTH OF KODIAK CITY SAT EVENING AND WEAKEN TO 961 MB 70 NM NORTHEAST OF CHIGNIK SUN MORNING BEFORE MOVING INLAND ACROSS SOUTHWEST ALASKA.

Today: S wind 35 kt diminishing to E 15 kt by noon then increasing to NE 50 kt in the late afternoon. Seas 20 ft. Rain.

Tonight: E wind 50 kt diminishing to 40 kt after midnight. Seas 18 ft. Rain.

Sun: S wind 45 kt. Seas building to 26 ft. Rain.

Sun Night: S wind 35 kt. Seas 22 ft.

Mon: E wind 45 kt. Seas 24 ft.

Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling season has been one setback clusterfuck after another:

The drilling rig Noble Discoverer went aground in Dutch Harbor in July.

The relief and response vessel, Arctic Challenger, failed tests of its spill capping device in early September.

Ice drove the exploratory drilling fleet out of place for two weeks in September.

And now this:

Guardsman takes Kulluk under tow

In 1982, I was on a tug – the Miriam de Felice – in almost the exact same place as this is happening, when we lost one of our two engines, and the stress on the remaining one caused it to start breaking down too.  We were in a storm a lot less harsh than this one, and barely made it to port for repairs.  I predict the Alviq will also be repaired, and the Noble Discoverer brought into Kodiak or Seward until the tug is fixed enough to continue on southward.