After being stranded for days by stormy seas on the remote Alaskan island where it had run aground, the Shell oil rig named Kulluk was being towed on January 7 to a bay off Kodiak Island for damage assessment.
The trouble started on Thursday December 27, when the rig broke loose while being towed to Seattle for maintenance after a summer of exploratory drilling off Alaska’s North Slope. For the next few days, workers wrestled with the rogue rig as backup ships were brought in and the initial tow ship had engine damage repaired, according to The New York Times. Afterward, 18 workers were evacuated on December 29 in a daring helicopter rescue, recounted in detail in Popular Mechanics. By New Year’s Eve, the rig had broken free of its tow ropes yet again, and it ran aground on Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited piece of land in the Gulf of Alaska.
The Kulluk is the drill rig counterpart to the Noble Discoverer, the drill ship that was occupied for several days last year by actress Lucy Lawless, star of the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, and other environmentalists, in their bid to stop offshore Arctic drilling. The activists were arrested for tresspassing, and the Noble Discoverer sailed north to begin drilling exploratory wells.
However no sooner had Shell started the drilling process in September than it was stymied by an ice floe that appeared to be drifting toward the operation. Shell suspended its exploratory drilling one day after it began. By the time the ice floe was out of range, Shell had decided to scotch its 2012 drilling plans and take the matter up again in 2013. The next drilling seasons begins in July.
Although the Kulluk is carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel and lubricants, according to The Wall Street Journal, none of it seems to be leaking. The drill rig’s proximity to land has been well documented by photographer Gary Braasch, who chartered a plane to take aerial photos of the Kulluk, anchored a mere 12 miles off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This is not the first such mishap for Shell’s drilling vessels. The Noble Discoverer, too, became unmoored in July and nearly ran aground. And previously, Shell’s spill-containment system malfunctioned while being tested in Seattle. All these incidents, plus the precariousness of drilling in the Arctic’s volatile weather, prompted the House of Representatives’ Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, comprising 45 House Democrats, to demand an investigation on Thursday January 3.
"The recent grounding of Shell's Kulluk oil rig amplifies the risks of drilling in the Arctic," they said in a joint statement, according to the Associated Press. "This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders, including the near-grounding of another of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs, the 47-year-old Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor and the failure of its blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, in lake-like conditions."