Shell's Seattle-Bound Oil Rig Evacuated, Lost, Recovered In Gulf Of Alaska

Jan 2, 2013

UPDATE: The Kulluk ran aground late Monday night, with 150,000 gallons of diesel and oil on board.

A floating oil rig that was abandoned on Saturday in heavy seas in the Gulf of Alaska is being towed away from land — a second time.

The Kulluk, a Shell Oil drilling rig, was being towed from Alaska to a Seattle shipyard when the engines on its tugboat failed. The two vessels began to drift toward Kodiak Island on Friday.

At Shell's request, the Coast Guard sent helicopters on Friday to evacuate the crew of the Kulluk. It’s named after the word for “thunder” in the Inuvialuktun language of Canada’s Northwest Territories. No reports of thunder, but gale-force winds and high waves foiled the first attempt to rescue the Kulluk's crew. All 18 crew members were evacuated to Kodiak on Saturday.

On Sunday, the crew-less Kulluk broke free from tugboats attempting to pull it to safety. Early Monday morning, Shell managed to hook up the Kulluk again. As of Monday afternoon, the 266-foot wide drill rig is being towed very slowly — 1 or 2 miles an hour — through a powerful winter storm.

“Seas have ranged from 20 to 25 feet and winds up to 70 knots,” said Shell-Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith, “Very severe. Very challenging.”

Smith said Shell and the Coast Guard are exploring how to secure the vessel until the storm passes.

The Aiviq ("walrus"), the tugboat whose engines failed, was brand new. The Kulluk is 30 years old. Before heading to the Arctic Ocean last summer, it spent nearly a year in a Seattle shipyard. Shell spent $292 million modifying it for Arctic duty.

Another vessel in Shell’s Arctic fleet, the Arctic Challenger, is still under construction in Bellingham, Wash. That oil-spill barge’s construction delays and equipment failures stymied Shell's plans to drill for oil off Alaska’s north coast this year.  

The Coast Guard originally required the Arctic Challenger to be built to withstand 25-foot waves. Shell then asked to meet a lower standard of handling just 20-foot waves. The Coast Guard said yes.

That 20-foot safety standard is the same one applied to mobile drilling units like the Kulluk in the Arctic.

If the National Weather Service forecast is correct, the Kulluk will face 30-foot waves and 55-knot winds tonight in the Gulf of Alaska off Kodiak Island.