Hearings begin on Arctic Ocean drill rig grounding

The Kulluk runs out of control.

USCG, Petty Officer 1st Class, Sara Francis

The U.S. Coast Guard began multi-day investigatory hearings on May 20 into Royal Dutch Shell's drilling rig the Kulluk, which went aground near Kodiak Island, Alaska, last New Year’s Eve.

After the incident, and after the rig broke loose from its towing vessels on its way to Seattle, Shell announced it would delay its Arctic Ocean drilling until at least 2014.

The U.S. Department of the Interior completed a review of Shell’s operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic Ocean earlier this year.

The Hearings

The marine casualty hearings on the Kulluk grounding are designed to help the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies better understand how technical and human factors played a role in the grounding.

"When we left Dutch Harbor, there was no forecast of 35-foot seas,” Norman "Buddy" Custard, Shell's emergency response team leader for Alaska, testified. “So at some point in time, you have to make the commitment to get underway, based on the available data we had, and the available forecast we had, understanding that we could encounter some storm systems out there."

Custard said that the risk of winter storms was addressed by a plan to move to deep water to ride out storms, if needed, in addition to identifying safe harbors.

The Wilderness Society has long expressed concerns about the many dangers presented by offshore drilling in the Arctic, and the potential effect a major spill could have on sensitive coastal regions.

Tell President Obama to keep oil rigs out of the Arctic

Extreme weather and remote locations can lead to unpredictable execution of safety plans - as in the case of Kulluk - and no technology exists for recovering significant amounts of spilled oil from  rough, cold seas.

When winter storms hit Alaska waters late last December, the towing plan that Custard approved failed and the crew was unable to control the Kulluk in the wind, so he made the decision to let the rig go aground. Among the questions that remain to be answered during the hearings is why the Aiviq lost power in all four of its engines and why only a single tow line to the Kulluk was used.

Many are also curious about the timing of the tow, in particular whether millions of dollars’ worth of potential tax liabilities caused Shell to rush the Kulluk's departure. The hearings are expected to go into the last week of May with numerous witnesses.

Protect the Arctic

The Arctic is especially vulnerable to potential oil spills because of its frigid climate which limits biological degradation and its highly sensitive ecosystems.

Take an action to tell President Obama to keep oil rigs out of the Arctic

Watch footage of Shell's out-of-control Kulluk rig, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard:

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