Ecocentric

A Rig Accident off Alaska Shows the Dangers of Extreme Energy

A drilling rig runs aground off the Alaska coast, underscoring the dangers of Arctic drilling

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Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg / U.S. Coast Guard

Shell's drilling rig Kulluk, off Sitkalidak Island in Alaska

As terrible as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was, one element worked in the favor of rescuers and cleanup personnel: location. The Gulf of Mexico is the nerve center of the U.S. offshore oil industry, which made it that much easier for BP and the federal government to respond quickly to the spill. The warm Gulf environment also simplified operations and accelerated the natural dispersal of the oil. As one environmentalist noted at the time, having an oil spill in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico was like having a heart attack in the middle of a hospital. It’s still a heart attack, but at least you won’t have to wait long for treatment.

Now imagine the opposite — a heart attack far, far away from the closest medical care. That’s what’s unfolding this week in Alaska, where a Shell drilling rig called the Kulluk broke free from a tow ship in stormy seas on New Year’s Eve before running aground on the southeast coast of Sitkalidak Island, near the larger island of Kodiak. It’s not clear yet how much if any of the rig’s more than 150,000 gal. of diesel fuel and lubricants might have spilled into the freezing cold waters. And because the ship was in transit rather than actively drilling, there’s no danger of a major oil blowout similar to the Deepwater Horizon spill. But the accident and the struggles that Shell and the U.S. Coast Guard have already experienced trying to save the rig underscores just how difficult and dangerous drilling in Arctic waters will be — which should be worrying since the oil industry and the Obama Administration are counting on the bounty promised in the far north.

(MORE: Two Years After the Gulf Oil Spill, Why We Won’t Stop Drilling)

The good news so far is that Coast Guard officials responding to the accident haven’t reported any oil sheen on the water near the rig or any other indication that the rig’s fuel supply has begun to leak. In a press conference, Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler III, the federal on-scene coordinator for the response, told reporters:

The results are showing us that the Kulluk is sound. No sign of breach of hull, no sign of release of any product.

That’s a good sign, but it’s worth remembering that in the immediate days after the Deepwater Horizon accident, no one thought the result would be such a massive, uncontrolled spill. There’s no way of being sure yet, as John Broder and Henry Fountain of the New York Times wrote today:

An official involved in the response operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said: “We don’t know about the damage. It’s too dark. The weather is horrendous.” The official said that when a helicopter flew over the rig Monday night: “It looked upright about 1,600 feet off the beach. There was no sign of any spill.” The official said the fuel tanks on the vessel were well protected inside the hull, making a spill unlikely.

(PHOTOS: On Board the Rig Drilling the Relief Well)

Even if the Kulluk accident doesn’t harm the environment — and Sitkalidak Island is home to sensitive species — the accident underscores the dangers of offshore drilling in the Arctic. Shell itself should know that — the company began drilling in Arctic waters this September before it was forced to suspend operations early because of bad weather. The other ship Shell has used in the Arctic, the Noble Discoverer, has had problems as well, nearly running aground in July and suffering an engine fire in November. During an inspection that month, the Coast Guard found more than a dozen violations involving safety systems and pollution equipment.

What’s really worrying is that the Kulluk ran aground almost a thousand miles south of the Arctic waters where it was meant to drill — so any difficulties the Coast Guard will experience trying to save the ship now would be even greater in the far Arctic. As Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic program, told the Washington Post, the accident should prompt a rethinking of drilling regulation:

Given that the Kulluk has run aground, it calls into question our readiness to drill in such a remote and risky region. The Obama Administration needs to impose Arctic-specific safety, training and spill-response standards. Clearly we’re not there yet.

MORE: It’s Not Just Spills—the Climate Risks of Arctic Drilling

8 comments
DougRoach
DougRoach

Curious that the Coast Guard is relied upon here by a commercial enterprise to pull their incompetent asses from the fire.
WHY do US taxpayers yet again foot the bill for a mega-multi-national who can't be bothered to pay attention to safety or proper planning??

caribousteaks
caribousteaks

So it seems Walsh has his mind made up before he started. No drilling in Alaska.  He also has made a few factual errors pointed out by other comments.  For one I do know that Shell did not stop drilling in the Arctic due to bad weather as he states but due to the federally imposed timeline to cease operations.  Anyone at BOEM could tell you that.  Operations in the Arctic could continue year round but federal law restricts operations to ice free summer months only.  That ended in the end of Sept for the Beaufort to the end of Oct in the Chukchi.  An extension was granted in the Beaufort this year due to open water and good weather.  At any rate Walsh' tone clearly is against drilling for oil.  He also confuses a maritime transit incident with drilling operations.  His point on access to resources though is well made and quite old hat in Alaska and on the Hill where Alaska's representative and senators and the US Coast Guard command have long argued for a permanent Arctic base.  That is not Shells call nor responsibility.  That is America's responsibility to patrol and monitor its territorial waters.  As the US Coast Guard and BOEM and dozens of other agencies (EPA, NOAA) will tell Walsh regulations to ensure safe operations already exist and are enforced in Alaska.  Indeed they are the most strict in the world.  The question remains should we not explore or use our territory because accidents occur?  What about the numerous barges and fishing boats that have gone down over the years in Alaska's Gulf?  Do we stop shipping/fishing?  No, we continue on doing so as safely as we can.  Airplanes will not stop falling out of the sky even with ten times the number of safety measures we have to keep them up.  Tow lines will also not stop breaking despite having five back ups available.  The rig was in tow and had not one, not two but three support ships on station working it.  US Coast Guard ordered the last line to be released to protect the crews of the vessels Alert and Aiviq.  So to conclude that drilling is unsafe 1000 miles north or that Shell is an unsafe operator because of a ship battling ultra high seas and sensibly saving its crew as ordered is rather a disjointed stretch. Perhaps one should ask rather, why did the rigs have to be towed back to Seattle in the first place? Why don't we have an Arctic Coast Guard base? And what can be done to provide greater safety in the Arctic to PROMOTE, not hinder, operations there?  I certainly prefer a progressive rational and sensible attitude versus Walsh's regressive defeatist rhetorical one.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

MEMO TO THE TIME MAGAZINE EDITORIAL STAFF:

Are you aware that one of your writers - Bryan Walsh - is passing judgment when he doesn't have all his facts lined up??

He repeats how no one knows just HOW MANY of the 150k gallons of oil were actually lost.  

Then, in drawing a typically liberal conclusion, he over-generalizes this accident to say that virtually all oil drilling is dangerous.  Obviously, the blatant implication is that it would be better if such drilling was never undertaken from the get-go.

Of course, Mr. Walsh completely ignores all of the current safety regulations, and all of the accident-free drilling operations in the US and abroad.  If Mr. Walsh had taken the time to study those more dangerous operations, he would see that such undertakings are 1) certainly feasible, 2) crucial to the local/regional economies, and 3) beneficial to the inhabitants of those areas.

Yet, Mr. Walsh would rather display his liberal, pro-environmentalist colors than write a comprehensive report on the subject.  In doing so, he would rather mislead readers, and get them thinking that drilling should not be undertaken.  Furthermore, to add insult to injury, he arrives at his conclusions WITHOUT FIRST GETTING HIS FACTS STRAIGHT (i.e. how many of the 150k gallons again??).

So, TIME MAGAZINE, you have to decide whether you want to keep a liberal hack on your payroll.  Do you really want to continue providing a disservice to your readership?  Do you really want to continue losing relevancy and revenues to better news organizations?

Think about it.

JKBullis
JKBullis

Bryan Walsh,

(first part)


Interesting as it is, this article offers judgments that are not well grounded, though the drill ship is certainly that.
The spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not a spill and it did not happen where resources to handle it were available. It was a major disaster and it showed that the whole industry and the entire government establishment were completely irresponsible with regard to preparedness for such occurences. It appeared from my perspective that the industry was mainly trying to preserve the asset while pretending great distress. In parallel we had government authority hand wringing about the fact that nothing could be done except try to clean up the beaches.
Who knows whether it had any effect at all, but hammering on a keyboard was all I could do. Maybe Secy. Chu heard my abuse about his wandering about giving graduation speeches as the Maconda gushed; maybe somebody heard my harangued against the EPA not knowing it would be better at first to stop the gushing and then get on the cleanup; maybe my outrage against Carol Browner's hand wringing and whining about bad oil, seeming to accept the inevitability of the on-going gushing; and maybe NRDC head Beinecke read my rebuke telling her to get on the phone to Washington and demand that the spill be stopped instead of opining with articles about the future of bad big oil.

JKBullis
JKBullis

(second part)

Secy. Chu did get to work on the problem, though it became clear that physics expertise might be a little inadequate for heavy ocean engineering problems. Maybe the EPA added pressure, though it seemed that a lot of undue concern was given to measuring the rate of flow of gush which might enable assessing fines when work of a different kind was desperately needed. Carol Browner did get replaced. Beinecke went to Washington to be on a committee to assess the situation, and a recommendation that there be a disaster response capability set up by the drilling industry.
Oh yes, I did make some futile calls trying to find the spill response equipment (called 'Clean Sweep' when built) that was built many years ago by Lockheed, which was also available at the time of the Exon Valdez disaster. Minor though that was in comparison, even there it was outrageous that this equipment was sitting on a dock, not far away, but not used because nobody knew what it was. But for the recent events, things like this that might have helped were lost or scrapped. My point is that there is really a need for competent oversight of drilling and shipping of oil that would keep the 'fire department' ready on the job.
I expect serious mistakes and unforeseen events. The unforgivable thing is that BP did not stop the gushing within something like a week, and that government did not get into a true rage about this lack of competent response.

JKBullis
JKBullis

(third part)

But if 150,000 gallons that might possibly spill seems remotely comparable to the Gulf spill, then we are not showing the kind of judgment needed to speculate on our ability to use energy.
Shell and the Coast Guard will take care of this latest problem quite well. What we should be calling for is a very sharp scrutiny of how prepared the drilling world is for the kind of spills that can really matter. I wonder if the disaster response exists and if it is reviewed by the right authority.
So what we might try for in the new environmentalism is to better do the things that we really need to do, thus keeping our industrial system working to enable continuation of our status as a developed country.

LeoK711
LeoK711

Drilling in the extreme environment of the arctic is simply asking for trouble. This is just a small example of how things will at some point go wrong - IF drilling is allowed to proceed. If the US undertook a half-way serious program to conserve energy - including higher mpg vehicles by Detroit - we wouldn't need every last drop of oil that exists on the (already badly damaged) planet!

This event is THE red flag on this issue, the dead canary in the coal mine. Will anyone in authority appreciate its signficance and actually speak up? Perhaps a world-wide boycott of Shell Oil is in order.

GaryBraasch
GaryBraasch

Where the Kulluk is going to drill -- assuming Shell can still get the final permits -- is not only almost a thousand miles north as Bryan said and well away from easy emergency aid, but is only 12 miles offshore from the protected coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  I saw it in October as it did preliminary work on that site.  If Shell loses it there, great damage could happen to Alaska's Arctic. See my photos of the Kulluk up there at
http://www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org/pages/nvoctober0812.php