Drill Rig Pulled to Safety; Reviews Begin

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 @ 08:01 PM gHale

One day after Royal Dutch Shell PLC towed a damaged floating drill rig to shelter from a remote Alaska island, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said his department will perform an “expedited, high-level assessment” of the 2012 Arctic offshore drilling season.

Salazar said the review will pay special attention to challenges Shell encountered with the drill barge Kulluk, which ran aground New Year’s Eve, the drill ship Noble Discoverer, which officials last month found had safety deficiencies, and Shell’s oil spill response vessel barge, which could not obtain certification in time for year’s drilling season.

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The administration remains committed to exploring potential energy resources in frontier areas such as the Arctic, Salazar said.

“But we also recognize that the unique challenges posed by the Arctic environment demand an even higher level of scrutiny,” he said.

Salazar unveiled the 60-day review shortly after the Coast Guard commander overseeing the Alaska district said he had ordered a formal marine casualty investigation of the Kulluk.

Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo said the investigation will look at every aspect of the incident, from possible failure of materials to evidence of misconduct, inattention or negligence.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, also announced he would conduct a hearing on the grounding.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the company welcomes the Interior Department review and that it would help strengthen the Alaska program. Shell has already been in dialogue with the department, Smith said.

“While we completed our drilling operations off the North Slope safely, and in accordance with robust regulatory standards, we nevertheless experienced challenges in supporting the program, especially in moving our rigs to and from the theater of operations,” he said.

The Kulluk, a circular barge 266 feet in diameter with a 160-foot derrick rising from its center, drilled last year in the Beaufort Sea. The company was towing it to Seattle Dec. 27 when it lost its tow line to the Aiviq, a 360-foot anchor handler. The Aiviq a few hours later lost power to all of its engines.

Lines to the drill vessel reattached four times but broke and the barge ran aground New Year’s Eve on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak Island. The Aiviq on Sunday night pulled the drill rig to deeper water and towed it Monday to a sheltered bay on Kodiak Island.

Shell’s second Arctic drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, owned by Noble Corp., experienced a separate set of problems, starting with a vibration its propulsion system after leaving the Chukchi Sea in early November. The vessel underwent inspection in the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor and the vibration problem got worse after the ship sailed for Seward.

Coast Guard inspectors in Seward found what the agency describes as several major issues regarding crew safety and pollution prevention equipment. Investigators ordered the vessel to remain in Seward more than two weeks while they addressed the deficiencies.

Salazar said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Tommy Beaudreau will lead the Shell review. It will look at safety management systems, oversight of contractors and the company’s ability to meet the strict Arctic standards, he said.

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