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U.S. Coast Guard Investigation on Shell Alaska Drilling Rig Turned Over to U.S. Department of Justice

12:08 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Noble Discoverer

Shell Oil’s three main components to their plans to get an Arctic offshore drilling regime going before competitors showed up went off the rails in 2012:

•  The Arctic Challenger, their alleged cleanup rig, spectacularly failed its early September tests in Puget Sound, under idyllic conditions.  It wasn’t even deployed to Alaska, which forced Shell to have to drill shallow holes in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

• The Kulluk, an ungainly rig the size of the aircraft carrier Hornet,that took the Doolittle raid across the Pacific in April 1942, was ground severely on the Kodiak Island area coast for a week, during winter storms.

•  The obsolete and decrepit drill vessel Noble Discoverer had one problem after another, as it was forced beyond its limited capabilities.

2013 promises no changes, as the global giant is reeling from worldwide challenges to its rapacious business model.  Additionally, its failed Alaska offshore season is about to be scrutinized more closely, and more publicly, than British Petroleum was looked at in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In the first of what may become a cascade of U.S. government announcements, the U.S. Coast Guard announced Friday that they have turned their findings on the drill vessel Noble Discoverer over to the U.S. Justice Department:

The Coast Guard found the Noble Discoverer could not go fast enough to safely maneuver on its own in all the expected conditions found in Alaska’s Arctic waters.

The Coast Guard also found “systematic failure and lack of main engine preventative maintenance,” which caused a propulsion loss and exhaust system explosion.

Among other issues listed were inoperable equipment used to measure the oil in water that is dumped overboard, improper line splices throughout the engine room, piston cooling water contaminated with sludge and an abnormal propeller shaft vibration.

Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow said he couldn’t discuss the details because the investigation has been forwarded to the Justice Department. Wadlow declined to say whether the Coast Guard believed criminal penalties could be warranted.

Shell announced early this week that the vessel under investigation is exiting the Western Hemisphere from Seward, Alaska, where it has been impounded since early November, on a dry tow vessel, destined for an Asian shipyard where, supposedly, it will be turned into some sort of perfect, or at least adequate ship, for extricating oil from under the Arctic Ocean’s floor.  There have been no announcements on how the DOJ involvement in the vessel might have an impact on Shell’s tow plan.

Within three weeks, the U.S. Department of Interior will be issuing their 60-day reassessment of Shell’s Arctic drilling plan, which has been somewhat torpedoed by the USCG announcement.  A negative assessment by DOI will set Shell back years, possibly driving their  stock share price into a major dip.

Independent of the findings on the Noble Discoverer, the USCG will be conducting a mandatory set of hearings into the December 31st grounding of the drill rig Kulluk, off the south shores of Kodiak Island.  That seriously damaged vessel is scheduled to be towed by two tugs to Dutch Harbor when harsh winter weather abates.  From there, it will also exit the Western Hemisphere and American scrutiny.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich has vowed to hold hearings on this, but has backed off from holding them in March.  His office told me Wednesday that it is looking more like the hearings will be in May.

I’m surprised that Shell’s Alaska management structure has remained intact though what has to have been the most poorly managed energy project season in our state’s history.  There will probably be a lot of heads rolling there before the end of May, though.

What may be most interesting to watch over the late winter and spring might be the way politicians pile on to Shell, so as to show they “really care” about responsible oil development, etc. – while other oil concerns ramp up their efforts to do their own offshore Arctic projects.

And their political contributions to such politicians.

As a side note:  I’m finding it more and more difficult to write about this and other subjects, here and elsewhere.  I think the evidence of impending catastrophic climate change, combined with the vulnerability of global nuclear waste are far, far more serious than even most environmental progressives yet realize.

Increasingly, I feel there is nothing you, I, or anyone can do to prevent a catastrophe that will reduce the worldwide human population by at least 75% within the next 75 years.

Kulluk and Noble Discoverer to Both Be “Dry Towed” to Asia for Costly Repairs

9:19 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk

Kulluk on the beach

Shell Oil has finally gone public with the story first carried anywhere back in January by firedoglake, that their conical drill rig, Kulluk, will be taken from Kiliuda Bay in Kodiak to Asia for major repairs. Additionally, their powered drill rig, Noble Discoverer, berthed in Seward, Alaska since being impounded by the U.S. Coast Guard in November, will be “dry towed” across the North Pacific to a shipyard in Asia. Their destination is almost certainly South Korea:

Both the much maligned Noble Discoverer and Kulluk, who have faced serious mechanical difficulties since completing Arctic drilling operations off of Alaska’s Arctic Continental Shelf last summer, will be headed to Asia soon according to a statement from Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.

The Kulluk, which has remained anchored off of Kodiak Island since its New Year’s Eve grounding, will be towed from there to the international Port of Dutch Harbor pending a tow plan approval. From Dutch Harbor, the 266-foot diameter conical drilling unit will then be dry-towed to a ship yard in Asia with a suitable dry dock.

The Discoverer’s operator, Noble Drilling Corp., will also dry-tow the Discoverer from its current location in Seward to South Korea.

“The outcome of further inspections for both rigs will determine the shipyard schedule and timing of their return to service,” Smith said in the statement.

When exactly the rigs will leave Alaska is unclear. A representative from Unified Command, the joint operation involving Shell, U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, could not say whether the vessel remained in Kiliuda Bay Monday. They noted that the latest information on the vessel was on the command’s website — which hasn’t been updated since Jan. 30.

A “dry tow” or “dry-tow” is movement of a vessel on the deck of a large, semi-submersible ship, or powered, floating drydock.

For some reason, the transponders of all the vessels in and around the Kulluk in Kiliuda Bay, were turned off on January 30th and 31st, two days after I announced the contemplated Asia decision, and the same day Dan Joling from the Associated Press picked up the story, so it is difficult to know where the tug Aiviq is right now, for instance.

Lisa Demer, writing on the new development early this morning for the Anchorage Daily News, notes:

It has big vessels for the dry tows lined up, and the Noble Discoverer will leave Seward in three to six weeks for a trip across the Pacific Ocean that should take two to four weeks, Smith said.

In a dry tow, a large vessel submerges through added ballast below the draft of the rig to be towed, Smith explained. That allows the drilling rig to float over the vessel’s deck, and the tow vessel is raised up, with the drill rig on its deck for the tow. It’s a faster method than towing on the water.

There are rumors that Shell is searching the world for replacement vessels, as it appears neither the Kulluk nor the Noble Discoverer will even be reaching a yard before mid to late April.

Investigations into the grounding and Shell’s 2013 Alaska Arctic drilling season by the U.S. Coast Guard; the U.S. Department of the Interior; the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard; and possibly the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, will begin within a few weeks. No precise information on any of these has yet been released, although the Interior Department’s 60-day review period of Shell’s Alaska operations ends on March 7th.

This story may be updated later Tuesday.

Photo by USCG PO 3rd Class Jonathan Klinginberg

Cost to Shell of Kulluk Grounding? $90 Million and Counting ….

1:38 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Shell arctic drilling deployment scheme

Thursday, at Shell Oil’s annual Results Conference in London, Shell CEO Peter Voser delivered a prepared address on the company’s global performance during 2012.  It included little information about the energy giant’s 2012 Alaska Arctic drilling season fiascos we don’t already know:

“Despite making some progress we have run into problems in the last few months. Our rigs will need more work if they are going to be ready for the 2013 drilling season. One, the Noble Discoverer needs a series of upgrades, and the other, the Kulluk, ran aground in a heavy storm on New Year’s Eve and has been damaged.”

After the address, though, Vosser answered questions from the press.  His answers provided some new information.  Questioned on whether or not Shell had decided to move the rigs when they did to avoid paying millions in Alaska taxes, Vosser tried to wriggle out from under previous statements and information available through Shell officials in Alaska:

Tim Webb, the energy editor at The Times in London, asked Voser if Shell was moving the rig from Unalaska to Seattle in order to evade Alaska’s oil and gas property tax.

“Assuming you say that’s true, because I think that came from Shell, would you say that’s an example of Shell not managing risks correctly, or making a poor decision in terms of managing risk in Alaska?”

In response, Voser denied that the decision to move the rig had anything to do with taxes, saying that the $5-6 million they would have had to pay is nothing in the grand scheme of things.

“There was a statement made by a Shell person, but in a completely different context, in a completely different meeting. That was then taken out of that context and then someone made a story out it. Just to be very clear on this one.”

The original story was written by Dutch Harbor Fisherman reporter Jim Paulin. In it, he quoted an email from Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith that was sent before the grounding. Paulin says he stands by his reporting.

“And I don’t think Shell would be backing away from that comment had it not gone aground. I think they would have been sending lobbyists to Juneau to try to repeal that tax. And I think that would be, in my opinion, the motivation for making that comment that it influenced their decision to move it.”

Reporter Paulin’s statement about Shell lobbyists in Juneau is, if anything, understatement.  During the same day Shell CEO Vosser  was delivering his annual report, in Juneau, the oil industry was flexing its muscle as it only can in Alaska.

The 2012 election brought an end to a Senate bipartisan coalition that dated back to shortly after the FBI busted a number of Alaska legislators for taking bribes from the major oil field service company in Alaska, Veco.  Although it was understood at the time that Veco’s bribers were working on behalf of oil giant ConocoPhillips, no employees from the latter were ever indicted by the Justice Department.  The crooked legislators smugly called themselves “The Corrupt Bastards Club,” and even had baseball caps made with the term plastered across them.

Replacing the bipartisan Senate coalition is a new GOP-run super majority that is intent on ramming through Senate Bill 21, which will repeal the most important element of Alaska’s taxation of oil fields here, and strip billions of dollars per year from state coffers and give it to immensely wealthy oil companies, like ConocoPhillips, British Petroleum and Exxon-Mobil.

Tuesday through Thursday, the Senate Special Committee on TAPS [Trans-Alaska Pipeline System] Throughput held telephonic hearings across the state on SB 21.  About 90% of the testimony was in favor of not implementing SB 21, or of even tweaking our tax rate on the oil industry, which is at the bottom of the middle of the pack worldwide.
Read the rest of this entry →

Alaska Blog and Media Coverage of the Kulluk Grounding – Updated

4:12 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk aground

A number of Alaska bloggers have been making efforts to inform their regular readers and others drawn toward the news story of the grounding of and salvage efforts toward the Shell Alaska drilling rig, Kulluk.

In alphabetical order:

Just a Girl from Homer:  Shannyn Moore posts most of her essays first at the Anchorage Daily News, in her weekly op-ed, then at The Mudflats. (see below)

Progressive Alaska:  I’ve been writing articles at PA and at Firedoglake on aspects of Shell’s Arctic Drilling plans since last summer.  Since the Kulluk debacle began unfolding on December, I’ve posted a dozen articles here.  They are easy to find at the bottom right hand border of the blog, as they have been the only articles posted here since December 30th.  Most of those articles were cross-posted at the national progressive blog, Firedoglake.  And some of the Firedoglake articles have not been cross-posted here.

Of those, the most important was probably the one I wrote last night, List of Questions on Shell’s Alaska 2012 Arctic Drilling Fiasco Grows Longer by the Day.  I’m going to use some of that article as the basis for another one at PA, perhaps later today.

Of the articles I’ve posted at both places, the one that seems to have drawn the most attention was my interview with Alaska marine environmental icon, retired University of Alaska Prof. Rick Steiner.  You can read it here.

Because of my background, mostly in the distant past, working at sea in Alaska, on small and large fishing boats, as a charter boat operator, and as a deckhand on oceangoing tugs, including towing one of Shell’s key components of their drilling scheme – the Arctic Challenger – from Seattle to Barrow, and having participated in several salvage operations, I’m able to offer a little more to this subject than some might.

The Immoral Minority:  Jesse Griffin has posted three articles on the grounding.  They can be found and followed at IM under the tag, Shell Oil.

The Mudflats:  This high traffic blog has posted articles by both Jeanne Devon and Shannyn Moore.  Beginning December 31st, The Mudflats has offered two articles by Devon, one by Ryan Marquis,  from I Eat Gravel, one by Thomas Dewar, and an op-ed by Moore.  Four can be found under the tag Shell Oil.  Moore’s op-ed, which is a Must Read, can be found at this link.

Moore’s op-ed raises an interesting point that I don’t think anyone else had yet brought forth:

The 1990 Oil Pollution Act has a limited liability clause. It limits the amount non-tanker vessels can be forced to pay in the event of an accident. So, after Shell has incurred $28 million in expenses, it may be able to invoke its liability limit.

I quoted Moore in my Firedoglake essay on questions.  The questions that the limited liability clause bring to mind immediately are along the line of “how is it determined who has spent what?” and “how soon will we be able to corner Sens. Begich and – especially – Sen. Lisa Murkowski on this?”

Murkowski’s views are important, as she is a key figure in why this liability limit is so absurdly and unrealistically low.  And she is also a major recipient of political contributions from the builder of the vessel most responsible for this debacle, the Aiviq.

Like me, Moore has a maritime background in her past.   With her network of contacts that rivals the best investigative reporters in Alaska, as was illustrated in her breaking of the strange hiring of “Judge” Paul Pozonsky, Moore will probably have a lot more to add to the Kulluk debacle.

What Do I Know?  Once again, Steve Aufrecht has provided several fresh views of the response to the Kulluk debacle, from his viewpoint as a distinguished professor of public administration.  Steve has written seven articles on this, beginning on January 2nd.  His articles are important enough to be listed here by their individual titles, which are intriguing, as well as inviting: Read the rest of this entry →

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 →

Is Shell About to Kill Someone in Risky Attempt to Save 2013 Arctic Drilling Season? – Updated

3:09 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk Salvage Attempt Sit @ 1300 AKST - 1/5/13

The Kulluk grounding Unified Command released information Saturday morning that all but indicates there will be an attempt to extricate the stranded drilling rig from the beach of Sitkalidak Island sometime today or tonight:

ANCHORAGE, AK – Unified Command (UC) today plans to hook a main tow line to the Kulluk to test capabilities in preparation for recovery operations of the drilling unit. This plan will depend heavily on weather and tidal considerations.

The UC also plans to deploy boom, as a precautionary measure, to Kodiak Island, with special attention being paid to salmon streams connecting to Ocean Bay.

Unified Command has developed a wildlife protection plan to be used in the event that wildlife in the area is impacted during the recovery. They have activated International Bird Rescue to assist in bird rescue programs should their expertise be required. In addition, Protected Species Observers are being deployed on-scene.

As previously stated, all plans rely on weather and tidal conditions.

The Kulluk remains upright and stable with no reports of sheen in the vicinity. Salvage teams conducted an additional survey confirming all fuel tanks remain intact. Throughout all operations the safety of the responders will continue to be the top priority.

The map above is one I created, showing the situation as of 1300 hrs. AKST today.  I added the position of the Kulluk, as it does not have an active transponder.

The vessels shown on the map are:

1.  The Alert, a state-of-ste art tug, owned by Crowley Maritime, under contract to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, as a required Prince William Sound (PWS) response vessel for tankers transiting the PWS area.  It was the tug that was ordered to release the Kulluk during the storm on New Years Eve. It is equipped with a very high quality and capable winch system.

2.  U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley, the USCG’s main Alaska asset for ocean emergencies.  It is most likely serving as the Unified Command’s local HQ for any attempt to extricate the rig.

3.  Pt. Oliktok, is a Seward-based small tug.  Built for Crowley in 1981-82, (I helped register its original compass on Elliot Bay in Seattle, in July, 1982).  It is shallow draft, with reinforced bottom, and might be helpful near shore.

4.  The Warrior, an old tug of Crowley’s 9,000 HP class, built in the late 1970s, mostly for barge towing between Seattle and Whittier, Alaska.  Currently based in Seward.  A tried and reliable design, but with older towing equipment.

5.  The Nanuq, a new oil rig service vessel, with large deck space and towing equipment that was shown to be inadequate last week.

6.  The Arctic Responder 2, a small Dutch Harbor-based oil spill response vessel, with very small deck space and no towing capability.  Probably to be used as a shuttle, should seas get very calm.

7.  The Perseverance, a supply vessel, whose role I’m unsure of.

8.  The Aiviq, the new tug built last year specifically for Shell’s Arctic operations, and whose design, performance and towing equipment are coming under increasing scrutiny.  Not to mention the political role its builder plays in Alaska oil politics.

You can go to this URL and watch the movements of the vessels named above.  In the 50 minutes since I took the screenshot, the Arctic Responder 2 and Nanuq have closed upon the Kulluk.

High tide will be around 6:53 pm local time.  At 8.2 feet, it is classified as a “holdup” tide.  Under normal circumstances, this would not be quite enough water to pull a wreck off a beach where it had just a few days ago been pounded by 20 to 30-foot seas.

I’ve pulled two valuable books from my library, thinking about how I might do this job:   Edward M. Brady’s Tugs, Towboats and Towing; and the same author’s Marine Salvage Operations.  I hate to say it, but these guys – today – are breaking more than a few rules.

Questions have arisen over the past few days over the fact that the towing winch on the Aiviq might not have been of a strength and sophistication to meet the specifications of the agreement that Shell had signed on to with the Federal government to proceed with the 2012 season.  More on that later.  Until then:

Phil –

FYI, I’ve just confirmed from Unified Command that the tug Aiviq does NOT have Best Available Technology (BAT) towing winch, which is a dynamic tensioning Markey Automatic Render & Recovery (AR&R) towing winch.  I will attach the PWS RCAC Aug. 2012 towing technology expert report, which discusses the BAT section on p.4 the following:

“The vast majority of operators agree that the electric-driven Markey Render-Recover© winch is the best winch technology on the market today.”

I believe Shell was required to have BAT in all its operations, and one would think that it would have outfitted its new $200 million purpose-built tug with the best towing winch possible.   This may have contributed to the repeated loss of tow.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the pressure from Shell on the USCG and the various parties contracted to pull this removal off this evening doesn’t get anyone killed.

Update – 2:45 pm AKST:  During Unified Command Press Conference, now winding down, Shell Alaska posted this youtube of their plan for what they will do if they get it off the beach:

USCG Pursuing Criminal Investigation Against Shell Drilling Rig In Alaska

1:29 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Noble Discoverer

Things just took a turn to the worse for Shell Alaska, and their scam to get two oil drilling rigs the hell out of Alaska before 2013, so as to avoid paying taxes here.

While its companion drilling rig, Kulluk, lies wallowing in the rocky surf off the southern coast of the Kodiak Island group, the Shell Alaska drilling rig Noble Discoverer lies impounded about 300 miles to the northeast, in Seward Harbor.  It pulled in to Seward in late November, with propulsion problems.  When the U. S. Coast Guard came aboard, things took a turn for the worse:

[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.

As pointed out by retired University of Alaska Prof. Rick Steiner, in my interview with him yesterday for Firedoglake, the is reason to doubt Shell will be able to drill in the Alaska Arctic at all during 2013:

Phil Munger:  In light of the revelation in the Alaska Dispatch today that Shell was indeed in a hurry to get out of Dodge – eh, Dutch – before New Years to avoid $6 million in taxes, do you have anything to add?

Rick Steiner: I say, great job by the Dispatch reporters on this!

Here again, is perfect evidence that Shell is putting profits over responsible conduct. We have seen this so much in Alaska oil industry and government we are almost desensitized to it.

This entire affair means that we take a “time-out” for 2013…even if the Kulluk (which apparently translates to “Thunder”) can be pulled off, it is almost certainly out of commission for 2013. That means not only that their 2013 Beaufort drilling is done, but also their Chukchi as they need the Beaufort rig as a potential relief rig for the Chukchi.

Anyone convinced that Shell Alaska’s performance here during the 2013 season shows the company ready to pursue more dangerous enterprises, like dealing with billions of gallons of crude oil off of and on our fragile Arctic coasts, needs to pursue another line of work. Read the rest of this entry →

The Kulluk Unified Command HQ as an Indicator Shell Alaska Has Its Head Up Its Ass – Updated

1:40 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Unified Command for the Kulluk response

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:

Unified Command for the Kulluk response

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.
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