Five salvage experts boarded the Kulluk drilling rig Jan. 2 to inspect the rig, which ran aground onshore Alaska earlier this week after efforts to regain control of the rig failed.
Severe weather conditions over the past several days delayed efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard to deploy the team. The Coast Guard was finally able to lower the team and retrieve them by helicopter onto the rig for the three-hour assessment, thanks to calmer conditions Wednesday morning.
"The information gained from the onsite assessment will be critical to identifying the available options for freeing the rig from its grounded position," according to a statement from Unified Command.
The Unified Command, which was formed to oversee recovery of the rig and to respond to any potential fuel spill, consists of the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Royal Dutch Shell plc, Noble Corp. and the Kodiak Island Borough.
The Coast Guard also delivered a state-owned emergency towing system to the Kulluk, which will be used in recovery operations. Smit Salvage will head up recovery operations, according to a statement from Unified Command.
The Kulluk had approximately 139,000 gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel on board at the time it initially came loose from the Aiviq; equipment on board the Kulluk was estimated to have about 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid. The Coast Guard reported seeing no visible sheen of fuel when it conducted an overflight inspection of the rig.
On Dec. 31, the Kulluk grounded on the southeast shore of the uninhabited Sitkalidak Island while under tow. High seas and severe weather conditions forced the vessel that was towing the rig to separate from the Kulluk to protect the vessel's crew. No workers were on board the rig when it ran ashore, and no injuries were reported.
The rig's grounding occurred after efforts to regain control of the rig in heavy seas and severe weather failed. The Kulluk broke free Dec. 28 from the towing vessel MV Aiviq, which was taking the rig to Seattle so a crane on board the rig could be repaired. Severe weather conditions hindered efforts over a four-day period to regain control of the rig.
Shell has faced a number of challenges in its efforts to conduct exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, from regulatory approval delays for the oil spill response barge Arctic Challenger to the presence of ice that forced Shell to curtail its offshore Alaska drilling plans earlier than planned. The company has also faced criticism from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, who question whether Shell can conduct drilling without harming the Arctic environment and wildlife. Greenpeace has called for Shell's Arctic drilling permits to be suspended.
The company noted that the Kulluk incident is a maritime transportation incident, not a drilling incident. Shell also pointed out on its website that it has a long history in Alaska and was responsible for the safe drilling of many of the wells drilled in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the 1980s. Additionally, the company said it has extensive Arctic experience through operations in areas such as Canada, Russia and Norway.
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