On 21 December 2012 the Shell Oil Exploration Rig Kulluk left the port of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, Alaska, with the intention of reaching the port of Seattle, in Washington State. It did this despite extremely poor weather conditions, apparently to avoid paying a tax bill that would be incurred if the rig remained in Alaska on 1 January, attempting to make the voyage in winds described as 'near-hurricane force'. On 28 December the rig ran into trouble, when one of the vessels towing it, the Edison Chouest Offshore operated Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel Aiviq, suffered an engine failure. This lead to a loss of control of the Kulluk, which dragged the two attached vessels, the Aiviq and the Alert 16 km towards the rocks of Kodiak Island over the following four days, before a cable connecting the Aiviq to the Kulluk snapped and the struggle was abandoned to avoid the loss of the towing vessels. The vessel eventually ran aground on 500 m deep rocks of Sitkalidak Island.
The Kulluk on rocks of Kodiak Island. AP.
The United States Coast Guard has formed a unified incident command with companies involved in the salvage operation, including experts brought in from Dutch company Smit Salvage. A total of 630 people and twenty-one vessels, are said to be involved.
The Kulluk is in the Arctic as part of a Shell plan to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, a project which has provoked considerable controversy with environmental groups concerned that the rigs will not be able to operate safely in Arctic waters, and which has bee dogged by problems from the outset. In February 2012 protestors from Greenpeace occupied the Nobel Drilling vessel Nobel Discoverer, which will be forming the other part of the two-drilling rig operation. In December 2012 the Nobel Discoverer was again detained, this time by the US Coast Guard for safety reasons. A third vessel, the Arctic Challenger failed to meet seaworthiness requirements for some months.
This new disaster has renewed calls for the US Department of the Interior to rescind Shells permits to drill in the Arctic. The event will also cost the company severely in financial terms, as it will be forced to reimburse all costs incurred by the recovery operation, as well as the original tax bill, estimated at US$6-7 million, since the vessel never made it out of Alaskan waters.
Shell has issued no statement other than to confirm that there was no loss of life in the incident, that the rig was not leaking any oil, and that it will cooperate fully with the US Coast Guard.
See also Amnesty International reports on the 2012 Bodo Oil Spill, Greenpeace activists occupy drilling ship in New Zealand, Oil spill off the coast of Nigeria, The UN reports on oil pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria and Drilling for oil on the Ningaloo Reef.
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