Coast Guard hearings on Kulluk grounding conclude; report due in July
Two weeks of U.S. Coast Guard hearings on the grounding of Shell’s drillship Kulluk concluded Thursday. A report on conclusions of the inquiry is due in early July, but that deadline may be extended, Coast Guard Lt. Commander Brian McNamara said.
Coast Guard officials are probing Shell’s decisions and risk analysis in sending the drillship across the Gulf of Alaska under tow during the winter, and whether the proper tugs and tow equipment were used.
Shell was taking the Kulluk, which had been used in its summer 2012 Arctic offshore drilling, from Dutch Harbor to a shipyard in Seattle for upgrades.
The work could not be done in Alaska, Shell officials told the hearing officers in previous days.
The findings have big implications for Shell. The Coast Guard may conclude the grounding was a weather-related maritime accident —there were no injuries throughpout the incident — but if the report is critical of Shell’s risk assessment procedures and decisions it would hand fresh ammunition to critics of Arctic drilling.
Susan Dwarnick, a U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement official and a member of the hearing panel, summed up a number concerns she and other members of the panel have with Shell’s decisions with the Kulluk.
“This was a winter tow with a single tow vessel; the Kulluk has a unique shape (conical) making evacuation of its crew difficult and risky,” Dwarnick said.
“It was the end of the (2012) operating season, so some of Shell’s emergency response resources had been moved out of Alaska; it happened over a holiday, so people were on leave and those left in management had dual roles,” creating potential for mixed communication, she said.
Also, the tow vessel Aiviq had experienced an engine problem on the voyage south from the Beaufort Sea, Dwarnick said. That should have been a signal to Shell and the Coast Guard.
As it happened all four engines if the Aiviq quit at a critical time, in rough weather in late December as the vessel maneuvered to control the Kulluk, and after a main towline had broken.
The engines were eventually restarted and other tugs arrived to help, but the Kulluk grounded Dec. 31 on an island near Kodiak. The drillship was damaged but its crew had been evacuated before the grounding and there were no injuries.
Also on Thursday, Jonathan Wilson, Shell’s senior offshore support manager based in London, was questioned by Coast Guard Commander John McTaggart, the lead investigator, on why the company arranged for more robust towing arrangements in taking the Kulluk back to Dutch Harbor from Kodiak in February, after the grounding.
Three tugs were used on that voyage compared with the single-tug arrangement on the voyage from Dutch Harbor in December.
A different tow contractor was also hired, McTaggart said. It was Crowley Marine Corp., a company experienced in Alaska conditions.
Edison Chouest, the Aiviq’s owner and operator, has been Shell’s primary support contractor, but the company is new to Alaskan waters.
Wilson said more tow resources were needed because the Kulluk had been damaged in the grounding, was riding lower in the water, and required more power in the tow.
The estimated tow-pull requirement for the damaged Kulluk was 300 tons, 50 percent greater than the 200 tons estimated as required for the tow of the undamaged Kulluk in December, Wilson said.
Wilson also defended the use of a single tow vessel, saying that while multiple tugs are commonly used in towing heavy cargoes like drill rigs, single tows are often used, too.
Having more than one tug on the tow can add complications and safety problems, particularly during rough weather. The principle danger is collision but there can also be problems if towlines cross and become tangled, particularly near the cargo being towed where the separate tow lines are near each other, Wilson said.
The Aliviq, used on the fateful December tow, is also a heavy vessel, approximately 350 feet in length, which successfully towed the Kulluk north to Dutch Harbor in mid-2012, and to and from the Beaufort Sea in the fall.
Shell officials said separately that the Aiviq and Kulluk successfully managed storms both in the Bering Sea and Beaufort Sea on the northbound voyage, and the Beaufort Sea storm approached the intensity of the December storm in the Gulf of Alaska.
Nevertheless, McTaggart questioned Wilson closely on why Shell chose to completely rewrite the tow plan and do a new risk assessment for the Kodiak-Dutch Harbor trip with the damaged Kulluk instead of using elements of the tow plan and risk assessment prepared for the December trip from Dutch Harbor.
Wilson said Shell wanted to work from “a blank document” on the tow plan and risk assessment.
“We had not yet, at that time, completely finished our analysis of what had happened in December, so that we could incorporate the lessons learned,” he told the panel.
Wilson also said Crowley developed the tow plan and the risk assessment, and developed its own analysis of the pull requirement of the Kulluk.
“We wanted to start fresh,” Wilson said.
McTaggart also questioned the use of a third Crowley “escort” tug in addition to the two tugs pulling the damaged Kulluk.
What was behind the question was that if the third tug was a contingency in case one of the two pulling tugs encountered a mechanical problem, why wasn’t there an escort tug accompanying the Kulluk and Aiviq in December?
Another line of questioning was why Shell opted to use a route from Kodiak to Dutch Harbor in February that was further offshore than the route used during December.
Wilson said Shell wanted a route “with plenty of sea room,” so that if things went wrong, or there was bad weather, there was plenty of room to maneuver, and more flexibility.
Also, the Kulluk itself was being towed unmanned because the rig was not in a condition at the time to support personnel, which played a part in the route decision.
In December, a more northern route was selected mainly so the Kulluk, which was then carrying 18 crew, and the Aiviq could be close enough to shore so that Coast Guard helicopters could reach the vessels in an emergency.
No matter how the report comes out, Shell won’t return to the Arctic soon, company spokesman Curtis Smith said. The Kulluk is in a Singapore shipyard for repairs and another drillship used by Shell in the Arctic, the Noble Discoverer, is in a shipyard in South Korea, undergoing repairs to its engines.
Smith said there is no date for Shell return to the Arctic to resume its exploration. Plans by two other companies with Arctic offshore leases, ConocoPhillips and Statoil, are also on the back burner, those companies have said.
Shell is awaiting regulatory changes by the U.S. Interior Department following a report on the 2012 drilling season that was critical of Shell, Smith said.
The company is also awaiting more information on President Barack Obama’s recently announced Arctic policy, which stresses environmental safeguards, he said.
Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected].