Drifting Shell drill ship grounds on rocks off Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan 1 (Reuters) - A large drill ship

belonging to oil major Shell ran aground off Alaska on

Monday night after drifting in stormy weather, company and

government officials said.

The ship, the Kulluk, broke away from one of its tow lines

on Monday afternoon and was driven, within hours, to rocks just

off Kodiak Island, where it grounded at about 9 p.m. Alaska

time, officials said.

The 18-member crew had been evacuated by the Coast Guard

late Saturday because of risks from the ongoing storm.

With winds reported at up to 60 miles an hour and Gulf of

Alaska seas of up to 35 feet, responders were unable to keep the

ship from grounding, said Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya,

the leader of the incident command team.

"We are now entering into the salvage and possible

spill-response phase of this event," Montoya told a news

conference late on Monday night in Anchorage.

There is no known spill and no reports of damage yet, but

the Kulluk has about 155,000 gallons of fuel on board, Montoya

said.

The grounding of the Kulluk, a conical, Arctic-class drill

ship weighing nearly 28,000 gross tons, is a blow to Shell's

$4.5 billion offshore programme in Alaska.

Shell's plan to convert the area in to a major new oil

frontier has alarmed environmentalists and many Alaska Natives

but excited industry supporters.

Environmentalists and Native opponents say the drilling

program threatens a fragile region that is already being

battered by rapid climate change.

"Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska's weather

and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during

transit," Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The

Wilderness Society, said in an email.

"Shell's costly drilling experiment in the Arctic Ocean

needs to be stopped by the federal government or by Shell itself

given the unacceptably high risks it poses to both humans and

the environment."

BEDEVILLED

The Kulluk's woes began on Friday, when the Shell ship

towing it south experienced a mechanical failure and lost its

connection to the drill vessel.

That ship, the Aivik, was reattached to the Kulluk early on

Monday morning, as was a tug sent to the scene by the operator

of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. But the Aivik lost its link

Monday afternoon, and the tug's crew could only try to guide the

drill ship to a position where, if it grounded, "it would have

the least amount of impact to the environment," Montoya said.

The Kulluk was used by Shell in September and October to

drill a prospect in the Beaufort Sea. It was being taken to

Seattle for the off-season when the problems began on Friday.

Susan Childs, emergency incident commander for Shell, held

out hope that a significant spill from the drill ship was

unlikely.

"The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks

are isolated in the center in the vessel and encased in very

heavy steel," she told the news conference.

Shell is waiting for weather to moderate "to begin a

complete assessment of the Kulluk," she said. "We hope to

ultimately recover the Kulluk with minimal or no damage to the

environment."

The Kulluk was built in 1983 and had been slated to be

scrapped before Shell bought it in 2005. The company has spent

$292 million since then to upgrade the vessel.

Shell's Arctic campaign has been bedevilled by problems. A

second drill ship, the Discoverer, was briefly detained in

December by the Coast Guard in Seward, Alaska, because of safety

concerns. A mandatory oil-containment barge, the Arctic

Challenger, failed for months to meet Coast Guard requirements

for seaworthiness and a ship mishap resulted in damage to a

critical piece of equipment intended to cap a blown well.

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