Updated Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 10:56 PM
ANCHORAGE — Royal Dutch Shell PLC's foray into Arctic offshore drilling suffered a serious setback Monday night when one of its two Alaska drilling rigs ran aground in shallow water off Sitkalidak Island.
Officials at a unified command center, made up of the Coast Guard, Shell, state responders and others, said the Kulluk grounded on rocks off the southeast side of the island.
The Kulluk had been under tow by a 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north in the Gulf of Alaska along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of a North Pacific storm that included winds near 70 mph and swells to 35 feet.
About 4:15 p.m., the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 10 to 15 miles off shore and grounding was inevitable, said Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya, the acting federal on-scene coordinator, at a press conference.
"Once the Aiviq lost its tow, we knew the Alert could not manage the Kulluk on its own as far as towing, and that's when we started planning for the grounding," he said.
The command center gave instructions to the nine tug crew members to guide the drill ship to the place where it would cause the last environmental damage. The tug cut the unmanned ship loose at 8:15 p.m. and it grounded at 9 p.m. near the north tip of Ocean Bay on uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, which is on the southeast side of Kodiak Island.
"The Alert was not able to do anything as far as towing the Kulluk but tried to maintain some kind of control," Montoya said.
The drill ship drafts 35 to 40 feet of water. The Coast Guard planned to fly out early Tuesday to plan a salvage operation and possible spill response. It is carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, Montoya said.
Susan Childs, Shell's on-scene coordinator, said it was too early to know how the vessel would react to the pounding of the storm when it was aground and stationary.
She was optimistic about its salvage prospects and its chances for staying intact.
"The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks are isolated in the center of the vessel and encased in very heavy steel," she said. "When the weather subsides and it is safe to do so, we will dispatch crews to the location and begin a complete assessment."
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said in a situation report it was unknown if there was a release of any oil product.
The Kulluk is designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters and underwent $292 million in technical upgrades since 2006 to prepare for Alaska offshore exploration. The drill ship worked during the short 2012 open water season in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast. It's ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull can deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.
Attached to a drilling prospect, the Kulluk is designed to handle waves 18 feet high. When disconnected from a well, it's designed to handle seas to 40 feet. Garth Pulkkinen of Noble Corp., the operator of the drill ship, said it was never in danger of capsizing.
The vessel first separated from a towing vessel Thursday night south of Kodiak Island.
The vessel Thursday was carrying a skeleton crew of 17 as it was towed by the Aiviq from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle for maintenance. The tow line broke at a shackle attached to one of the vessels.
"It was new. It was inspected before it left Dutch, but it broke," said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.
The Aiviq crew alerted the Coast Guard and the cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak motored to the vessels. Two vessels under contract to Shell also left from Seward.
Before a line could be reattached, the Aiviq's engines failed, possibly from contaminated fuel. The Alex Haley attempted to secure the drifting drill ship but that line failed and wrapped itself around one of the cutter's propellers, requiring the cutter to return to Kodiak on one propeller.
With additional heavy weather predicted, the Kulluk crew was evacuated Saturday from the heaving drill ship. Crew members hooked up emergency tow lines and left them trailing behind the vessel in case they were needed.
The Aiviq, with its engines restored, and a tug re-established lines to the drill ship, only to have the lines break Sunday afternoon.
At about 12:45 a.m. Monday, during a lull in the storm, the crew of the Valdez-based tugboat Alert grabbed the original 400-foot line trailing the free-floating drill ship. Later in the morning, the Aiviq grappled aboard one of the emergency lines.
The vessels moved north Monday afternoon were heading toward shelter in Port Hobron on Kodiak Island's southeast side.
AP Photo/U.S Coast Guard, Chris Usher
In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, the mobile drilling unit Kulluk is towed by the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq in 29 mph winds and 20-foot seas 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The crews remain stationed with the drill rig Kulluk Sunday 20 miles from Alaska's Kodiak Island as they wait in rough seas for another tug boat to arrive. The Coast Guard says the goal is to tow the Kulluk to a safe harbor and determine the next step.