Shell says that a drilling platform that ran aground off Alaska during a storm on New Year's Eve is "stable," while federal response officials add that there is "no sign" the rig's hull has been breached or that it is leaking any oil.
But the accident is the latest blow to Shell's attempts to begin offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, and underlined critics' concerns that the region is simply too tempestuous and dangerous for drilling to take place.
The accident happened while the drilling platform, the Kulluk, was being towed to Seattle for maintenance, roughly two months after it had drilled the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. Last Thursday, the Shell-chartered tugboat Aiviq lost its tow line to the rig; several attempts to reconnect the line proved only temporarily successful, and as a storm raged, all four of the Aiviq's engines failed, leaving the two vessels adrift until the Kullukgrounded just offshore of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island adjacent to Kodiak Island, in the Gulf of Alaska.
According to Jerry Beilinson of Popular Mechanics, the rig "is built with 3-inch steel plates and a circular shape to resist enormous pressures from pack ice. For that reason, it seems well-prepared to survive being slammed against the coast."
However, as New Scientist noted, the accident "will give environmentalists another stick with which to beat Shell. The growing catalogue of mishaps looks very bad for the company."
Those mishaps, records the FuelFix blog:
“Shell has not been able to conduct any phase of its operations without substantial problems,” said Mike Levine of Oceana. “From construction of its response barge to complying with air and water protections to transit, Shell’s season has been plagued with problems, missteps, and near disasters.”
Critics also pointed out that Shell was fortunate in that the accident occurred off Kodiak Island, site of Alaska's Coast Guard headquarters. "What would happen if similar troubles ever occur in the much more remote Arctic Ocean?" asked Alex DeMarban and Suzanna Caldwell in an article for Alaska Dispatch. "No one involved with the recovery would speculate Tuesday."
Shell protested that the particular series of events that led to the Kulluk's grounding was an improbable one.
"It seemed an unlikely scenario that all four engines would fail simultaneously," said Shell's Alaska operations manager Sean Churchfield. Maybe so, critics retorted; but the fact is that they did fail, and in the hostile Arctic, seemingly unlikely failure is not only more likely, but its potential consequences are much more severe.
"Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies," said Rep. Ed Markey, senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. "Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment."
IMAGE: Waves crash over the conical drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground
on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. A
Unified Command — consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard, federal, state
and local partners and industry representatives — was established in
response to the grounding. (U.S. Coast Guard)