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
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 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
"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
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.