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January 18, 2013
Will Kulluk reverse Arctic drilling?

For the oil industry, it is hard to imagine worse timing for Shell Alaska’s drilling rig, the Kulluk, to run aground in federally protected waters near Kodiak Island off Alaska’s southwest coast.  The accident occurred on December 31, 2012, months before Shell is scheduled to begin its summer drilling projects in the Arctic Ocean.  That gives the federal government just enough time to take another hard look at Shell’s plans to prevent unprecedented oil-related disasters in Arctic waters.  The government will also investigate why the Kulluk broke loose–twice–from the tugboats that were taking the rig from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for maintenance.  The vessels were being lashed by a powerful storm when the moorings snapped. 

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One week later, the rig was towed about 45 miles from the grounding site on Sikalidak Island to a bay for inspection.  The rig contained about 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel; there were no reports of sheens on the water near the rig.

Marine casualty investigation

On January 8, 2013, both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Interior (DOI) announced plans to investigate the incident as well as Shell’s management program for its planned Arctic drilling projects.

The Coast Guard launched a marine casualty investigation, which is convened when a vessel casualty has considerable regional significance, may indicate vessel class problems, or is the best means to assess technical issues that may have contributed to the incident.  Specific investigative tasks regarding the Kulluk incident are directed toward the towing vessels, towing equipment, procedures, and personnel; determining whether any failure of material (either physical or design) contributed to the incident; and whether there is evidence of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence, or willful violation of the law.

The Coast Guard states that it will take several months to report on the investigation.  DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will support the Coast Guard.

DOI’s fast-track review

The DOI describes its own 60-day review as an “expedited, high-level assessment” of Shell’s 2012 program for drilling in the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas.  The review will pay “special attention” to challenges that Shell encountered in connection with certification of its containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger; the deployment of its containment dome; and operational issues associated with its two drilling rigs, the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer.  Before the Kulluk’s grounding, both BSEE and Coast Guard inspectors were involved in “ongoing inspections” of both rigs, according to the BSEE.

‘Transportation mishap’

The grounding mobilized opponents of expanded extraction of fossil fuels buried under the Arctic Ocean’s seabed and has thrown a scare into Alaska’s government, which envisions an economic gold mine with the initiation of Shell’s projects.  

“Some anti-drilling organizations are using this transportation mishap to demand an immediate halt to offshore drilling,” said Alaska governor Sean Parnell. “We disagree. Many wells have been safely drilled in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf, and the development of offshore oil production is a critical part of our energy future. We believe it is strongly in the state’s and the nation’s interest that we continue to responsibly explore the vast hydrocarbons known to be available in the shallow waters of the Arctic OCS.”

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