|Shell readying salvage crew for Arctic rig that ran aground
BY BEN LEFEBVRE
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Royal Dutch Shell and emergency responders are preparing to send a salvage crew to a company oil rig that ran aground off the coast of Alaska, a company spokesman said.
Cold weather and high waves had prevented the salvage crews from boarding the Kulluk, a drilling rig owned by Shell and operated by Noble Corp. that struck Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited area about 300 mi southwest of Anchorage.
Aerial inspections would run throughout Wednesday to inspect the rig, Shell and the Coast Guard said. The weather had cleared enough that emergency responders would soon be able to board the Kulluk and assess whether the rig had borne significant damage, Shell spokesman Scott Scheffler said.
"There's a huge, drastic improvement compared with what we had seen," Mr. Scheffler said. "Our hope is to get that salvage crew on the vessel." The rig has thick steel walls to ward against punctures, but lacks equipment to propel itself though choppy seas.
Coast Guard vessels and another tow ship hired by Shell went to the Kulluk's aid Monday but tow cables repeatedly slipped from the rig as it faced 35- to 45-ft seas and 50-knot winds. The rig crew already had been evacuated.
The accident gives ammunition to critics of Artic drilling, who have said that the region's extreme weather and remoteness make the chances of an oil spill or worker injuries too high. Shell paid $292 million since 2006 to outfit the Kulluk so it could operate in Arctic conditions between July and October.
"It's clear from multiple incidents that oil companies cannot currently drill safely in the foreboding conditions of the Arctic, and drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment," Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) said in a statement.
Members of the response team also met with Sen. Lisa Murkowsi (R., Alaska) to brief her on the event, the U.S. Coast Guard said. A member of Murkowski's office was not immediately available for comment.
The Kulluk had been on its way to Seattle for maintenance work, Shell said in an earlier statement. The rig's grounding did not affect drilling operations and does not involve any possibility of crude oil release, Shell said.
Shell used the Kulluk and another rig to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's northern coast last year, the first such operations in U.S. Arctic waters in more than two decades.
But the Kulluk grounding could cut confidence in oil production in the Arctic. Shell said it would invest $5 billion to explore for oil and gas in the Arctic, but extreme weather has riddled the project with accidents and missed schedules, and the latest accident could raise the hackles of environmentalists.
"The worse the accident proves to be, the more likely Shell's Alaskan drilling plans could be compromised," Wells Fargo analysts said in a note to clients. The analysts added any delays could also jeopardize "future Alaskan work for Noble's Discoverer drillship."
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