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Tow lines attached to Shell Oil drilling vessel in Gulf of Alaska

  • The Anchorage Daily News
  • Published Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, at 5:59 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, at 1:45 p.m.

— Update, 6:40 a.m.:

Tow lines were reconnected overnight from the Shell drill rig Kulluk to two support vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, according to Shell and the U.S. Coast Guard. The vessels are 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island, according to a joint statement issued Monday morning by Shell, the Coast Guard and others.

The Kulluck is again under tow by the vessel Aiviq and another vessel, the tug Alert, said the statement, issued at 6:06 a.m.

Around 12:45 a.m., the statement said, the Alert "was able to secure the 400-foot line that was previously the tow line used by the Aiviq. The Alert successfully added tension to the line to test its ability to hold." The Aivik then reconnected its line to the Kulluk later in the morning, the statement said.

"Difficult weather conditions are anticipated to continue over the next several days. Unified Command is evaluating all potential options to further secure the vessel until the weather clears," the statement said.

EARLIER STORY:

An unmanned mobile oil drilling rig owned by Royal Dutch Shell is adrift -- again -- south of Kodiak Island after it lost towlines Sunday afternoon from two vessels trying to hold it in place against what have been pummeling winds and high seas, according to incident management leaders.

A team of 250 people from the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Shell, and one of its contractors was hunkered down Sunday, mainly in Midtown Anchorage's Frontier Building, trying to resolve the ongoing crisis with Shell's drilling rig, the Kulluk.

Before the latest turn for the worse, representatives of Shell, the Coast Guard and the state Department of Environmental Conservation told reporters in a briefing early Sunday afternoon that the situation was critical, but under control.

Then towlines from two Shell-contracted support vessels, the Aiviq and the Nanuq, "separated," the joint command team said in a statement sent out at about 4:30 p.m. The setback happened sometime after 1 p.m., just as commanders were briefing news media on what appeared at that point to be a successful response after a series of failures. They didn't yet know the towlines had broken free, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith, who is part of the unified incident command team.

A third vessel, the tug Alert, which is usually stationed in Prince William Sound as part of an emergency response system, has arrived on the scene. And another Shell-contracted support ship, the Guardsman, is on location.

"The crew is evaluating all options for reconnecting with the Kulluk," the command team said. Towlines are still attached to the Kulluk and conceivably could be reattached to nearby ships, Smith said. Shell crews use 10-inch steel cables or synthetic lines that attach to vessels with hardware, he said.

With the Kulluk crew evacuated for safety reasons, there's no one on board to tend the winches or maneuver equipment, Sean Churchfield, Shell's incident commander and the company's operations manager for Alaska, told reporters earlier on Sunday.

All decisions, including the evacuation, are being made by the group as a whole, said Capt. Paul Mehler, the Coast Guard's Anchorage-based commander.

HEAVY SEAS FOIL TOWS

Crews are waiting for a break in the weather to secure the towline, Smith said.

The Gulf of Alaska storm has been fierce, with near-hurricane winds on Saturday night, Mehler said. Only a small lull is predicted for Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The forecast for Sunday night was 28-foot seas and winds in the range of 50 mph or more, about what it was on Saturday, said meteorologist Bob Clay. Seas and winds are expected to diminish early Monday morning, then pick back up later in the day as another storm moves in, he said.

With no towlines securing it in place, the crewless Kulluk was drifting about 25 miles south of Kodiak, Smith said Sunday evening. He didn't have an estimate on how many hours it would take the Kulluk to reach shore if it continued adrift. A number of variables, including currents and wind speed, would affect when and where it hit, if it came to that, he noted.

The incident team also must find a safe harbor for the Aiviq, as well as the Kulluk, to undergo inspections and possible repairs before heading south to Everett, Wash., where the Kulluk had been headed for off-season maintenance before the troubles began.

The $290 million, 266-foot diameter Kulluk is a conical-shaped mobile rig that began drilling a single exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this year. But it cannot propel itself, and a series of failures involving it began on Thursday during a stormy Gulf of Alaska crossing.

The 360-foot, $200 million Aiviq is a new ship commissioned by Shell for its Arctic work, built and owned by Louisiana-based maritime company Edison Chouest Offshore. It has 24 crew members on board, Smith said.

The Kulluk lost its towline from the Aiviq on Thursday. A second towline was attached for a time, but then early Friday all four engines on the Aiviq failed. The Coast Guard sent the Alex Haley, a 282-foot cutter. It delivered a towline to the Aiviq, which was still attached to the Kulluk, but the sheer mass of the ship and the drilling rig, combined with 40 mph winds and building 35-foot seas, broke the connection and the line became tangled in the cutter's propeller and damaged it. The Alex Haley turned back to Kodiak for repair, but now is back at the Kulluk scene.

'FULL INVESTIGATION'

On Saturday, the Kulluk's 18-person crew was safely evacuated to Kodiak in two Coast Guard helicopters. A Coast Guard video shows the Kulluk bobbing in rolling seas as a helicopter approaches to lower a basket and lift the crew members out, one by one.

The Aiviq's engines were repaired with new fuel injectors, and the Nanuq put a towline on the Kulluk for a time. The Aiviq then was running with two engines at a time, as a precaution, officials said Sunday.

The towline mishaps and the engine failures are under investigation, Churchfield said. Initial reports suggested that contaminated fuel might have caused the engines to malfunction, but that hasn't been confirmed through fuel analysis, he said.

"I don't really want to speculate as to the causes of the propulsion failure on the Aiviq," Churchfield said. "We are looking for the solutions and we will have a full investigation. At this stage, I don't have any firm information to pass onto you."

However, the fuel now being used is from a different tank than that in use when the engines failed, said Shell's Smith.

The plan to use just a single ship to tow the Kulluk was reasonable, given the Aiviq's features, said the Coast Guard's Mehler.

"This type of operation is very normal. With the vessel the size of the Aiviq, with the capabilities of the Aiviq, with four engines, it was above and beyond what would be required to be able to tow, even in very extreme conditions," the commander said.

Shell did not have to get Coast Guard approval of its towing plan, because the maritime operation was so routine. But the oil company did consult with the agency about the journey, Mehler said.

At the start of Shell's 2012 drilling season, the Aiviq towed the Kulluk from a shipyard in Washington state to Dutch Harbor though eventually two tugs took over its handling in the Beaufort Sea, Churchfield said.

A DIFFICULT START

Two crew members on the Aiviq suffered minor injuries at some point, but both are back at work, Churchfield said.

No oil has been spilled during the incident, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Shell has had a difficult experience as it tries to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic, its first attempt in two decades. It couldn't drill to oil-rich zones because its novel oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing. Its other drilling rig, a converted log carrier called the Noble Discoverer, recently was cited by the Coast Guard for problems with safety and pollution discharge equipment. Mehler ordered it held in Seward while the most serious issues were addressed. While the ship now is free to leave for Seattle, it remains docked in Seward because it is waiting for escort vessels working on the Kulluk situation, Smith said.

In October 1980, in a situation eerily similar to what is happening now, 18 crew members were evacuated off a jack-up drilling rig named the Dan Prince as rough seas in the North Pacific 650 miles south of Kodiak threatened to destroy the unit, according to news reports at the time. Crews couldn't attach a towline. The rig then sank, according to an online listing of rig disasters.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com.

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