Stricken Alaska oil rig refloated, towed to safe harbor

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Mon Jan 7, 2013 11:16pm GMT

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles (64 kms) southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska in this U.S. Coast Guard handout photo taken January 3, 2012. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter/Handout

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles (64 kms) southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska in this U.S. Coast Guard handout photo taken January 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter/Handout

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground last week reached a safe harbor on Monday, where it will be examined to assess its seaworthiness.

A rescue team towed the Kulluk drillship 30 miles to shelter in Kiliuda Bay, Royal Dutch Shell's emergency response coordinator said.

The fortunes of the saucer-shaped Kulluk, which started drilling in the Beaufort Sea late last year, face particular scrutiny because it was a major part of Shell's controversial and error-prone 2012 Arctic drilling program.

Last week, stormy weather wrestled the rig from the ships towing it, and tossed it to the shore of Sitkalidak Island. On Sunday night, the rig was refloated.

"The tow has gone pretty much as expected," Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska ventures manager, said at a Monday news conference in Anchorage.

Kiliuda Bay was previously designated a refuge for disabled vessels. Churchfield said it has not yet been determined whether the Kulluk will be fixed there or somewhere else, and whether it will continue on for planned winter maintenance near Seattle.

The extent of damage had yet to be determined, although the salvage teams found no signs of breaches to its fuel tanks and only one area where seawater leaked onboard.

"We were not able to have that detailed assessment where it was aground," Churchfield said. "It would be speculation to say what's going to happen next because, until we have that damage assessment, we really will not be able to develop that plan."

PARTNER IN TOW

The Kulluk went aground in a storm on December 31 after the ship towing it, the Aiviq, lost power and its tow connection in the Kodiak archipelago, far from where it began its well in September and October.

On Monday, the Aiviq towed it to Kiliuda Bay even though an investigation into its failures is not yet complete.

Alaska environmentalist Rick Steiner questioned Shell's reliance on the Aiviq and said he believed the problems with the Kulluk and its other contracted drillship, Noble Corp's Discoverer, would preclude any drilling this year.

Shell officials in Alaska have so far declined to comment on the upcoming Arctic drilling season, but the whole response team will for now be relieved to have the Kulluk in safer waters.

"I think everybody on site and at the command center was overjoyed, yelling and screaming and happy," said Steve Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the state's response coordinator.

Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler recognized it as a major milestone, but stressed there was still a lot of work to do. "We are not letting our guard down," he said.

Prior to the Kulluk accident, Shell's main problem in Alaska was the Discoverer, which had been assigned to Chukchi Sea work but failed to meet federal air standards, prompting Shell in June to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for a permit with looser limits for air pollution.

In September, the ship dragged its anchor in the Aleutian port of Dutch Harbor and nearly grounded on the beach there.

After drilling stopped, the Discoverer was cited by the Coast Guard for safety and environmental-systems deficiencies, which Shell and Noble vowed to fix before this summer's season.

And another ship deemed necessary for drilling was so beset with problems that it never even made it to Alaska in 2012. The Arctic Challenger, an oil-containment barge built specifically for Shell's Arctic drilling, failed to win Coast Guard approval for seaworthiness in time to allow any drilling to oil-bearing depths. Shell was permitted to drill only "top-hole" wells, to depths of about 1,400 feet below the sea surface.

As for the Kulluk, as of Sunday more than 630 people were deployed in response, along with a large fleet of vessels and aircraft, according to the incident command team. Shell will be paying for it all, though the cost to date is unknown.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Young and Andrew Callus in London; Writing by Braden Reddall; Editing by David Holmes, Louise Heavens and David Gregorio)

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