Coast Guard report critical of Shell, contractor in Kulluk grounding

A U.S. Coast Guard report released Thursday on the 2012 grounding of Shells’ drill vessel Kulluk is highly critical of Shell and its marine contractor, Louisiana-based Edison Chouest.

The grounding occurred on a small island off Kodiak’s southern shore during a storm in the Gulf of Alaska in December 2012. Shell was transporting the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for winter maintenance when the accident happened.

Although the Kulluk was extensively damaged and was a total loss, there were no injuries or fatalities during the event.

The report singled out risk management practices by Shell and Edison Chouest but a senior Coast Guard official, Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, also cited the lack of experience of Edison Chouest in northern waters.

Ostebo is the commandant of Alaska’s 17th Coast Guard District, and wrote a review of the report that is included with the document.

“A series of events contributed to the causal factors that resulted in the grounding of the Kulluk, with the most significant factor being the inadequate assessment and management of risks associated with a complex vessel movement during the winter in the unique and challenging operating environment of Alaska,” the Coast Guard said in a statement on the report.

Ostebo went further in his criticisms.

“The most significant factor was the decision to make the voyage (with the Kulluk) in the winter,” Ostebo wrote in his review of the report. He faulted Shell and Edison Chouest for risk management and their application of towing measures.

He said the master, chief engineer and third mate of the Aiviq, the Edison Chouest vessel towing the Kulluk, may have been negligent, and that the vessel Aiviq had experienced problems prior to the accident that were not reported to the Coast Guard, which are potential violations of law. The incidents are now under investigation.

Ostebo also noted Edison Chouest’s lack of experience in northern waters.

“Mariners who have experience working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico do not necessarily possess the knowledge of the unique hazards that exist in the Gulf of Alaska,” he wrote.  

Ostebo went on to recommend that Edson Chouest or other companies working in the Arctic develop specific guidelines, safety checklists and other procedures.

Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, agreed with the report’s major conclusion that there was, “Inadequate assessment and management of the risks by the parties involved,” which were Shell and Edison Chouest.

“Vessels and the operations are growing more complex and the risks that accompany these operations increase, whether in Alaskan waters or not. The failure to (adequately) understand and not completely assume past practice to address new risks is critical both in company practice and culture,” Servidio wrote.

“In this case the risks associated with a single vessel tow by a new purpose-built vessel of a unique conical-shaped hull, with people aboard, in winter Alaskan waters, where weather systems and sea are expected to rapidly develop, were extremely high,” Servido wrote.

The report itself made several safety recommendations including that the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant and the Towing Safety Advisory Council establish a working group to draft a statement addressing issues raised by the accident, and other issues related to towing offshore drilling units in the Arctic.

The report also recommended a review of standards for ocean towing systems to include “inspections and non-destructive testing of towing equipment, detailed review of tow configurations to include history of towing equipment such as shackles, connector links and bridge chains.”

In a written response, Shell said: “We are reviewing the Coast Guard's report on the Kulluk towing incident. We appreciate the thorough investigation and will take any findings seriously.”

“Already, we have implemented lessons learned from our internal review of our 2012 operations. Those improvements will be measured against the findings in the U.S.C.G. report as well as recommendations from the US Department of Interior,” Shell said.

Edison Chouest was not available for a comment on the report.

Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the Coast Guard report “has made a number of good recommendations to improve the safety of maritime activities as exploration of the Arctic moves forward. I believe that we can safely develop our energy resources in the Arctic, but it requires that we adhere to world-class safety standards.”

Updated: 
11/21/2016 - 9:20am