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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Kulluk had dragged both tugs toward land in hurricane conditions

Runaway oil rig drags tugs through Alaskan storm

Posted 7 hours 17 minutes ago
Two vessels trying to control a runaway oil rig that ran aground in Alaska on New Year's Eve had to cut it loose to save themselves after being pulled more than 16 kilometres towards shore in "near hurricane" conditions.
Details are still emerging from coast guard officials and Shell, the company at the centre of a highly-controversial and accident-prone Arctic drilling program of which the Kulluk rig was a part.
The 28,000-tonne saucer-shaped drillship was tossed towards the shore on waves up to 11 metres high driven by winds up to 100 kph, pulling its main support vessel and a tug behind it.
Darci Sinclair, an official of the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command set up by the US Coast Guard and the companies involved, described the conditions as "near hurricane strength".
"Regaining control became extremely challenging," he said.
An update from the unified command said the Kulluk was still aground on Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, but was "upright and stable".
The 30-year-old Kulluk is operated by Noble Corp and was refitted by Shell for its summer 2012 drilling expedition in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska.
Shell has spent over $US4.5 billion on preparation for extraction activities there and in the Chukchi Sea further east, but has yet to complete a single well, and has suffered a number of embarrassing setbacks.
The incident has raised questions about the wisdom of drilling so far north in such a remote, environmentally delicate and technically challenging place.
Map: Sitkalidak island, Alaska
The Kulluk was on its way south for the winter. Drilling activity stopped for the season two months ago.
It had been towed east from the Beaufort Sea on Alaska's northern coast, and then south through the Bering Strait that separates the northernmost US state from Siberia.
On December 28, around halfway to its winter destination in Seattle, disaster struck around 80 kilometres off the south coast of Kodiak island in the Gulf of Alaska.
Engine failure struck the towing vessel Aiviq - a state-of the art icebreaker that is just a few months old.
The weather was already rough and the drillship's 18-strong crew were lifted off, and a doomed four-day battle to keep the Kulluk off the rocks began.
As weather conditions worsened, the operation ran into deeper difficulty a few hours after nightfall on December 31 less than 31 kilometres from the shoreline.
Aiviq, one of two vessels that were attached at the time, lost its line.
It was re-attached, and battled on against the elements along with a tug, the Alert, but the coast kept getting closer as the storm blew all three vessels to the northeast.
At 08.15pm January 1 (local time), the order was given to cut lines to the Kulluk to save the two support boats and their crews.
Half an hour later, the Kulluck ran aground around 500 metres from the shore on Sitkalidak Island on what a coast guard official described as "loose rock and sand".

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