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