Another Shell debacle: Offshore drill rig runs aground in Alaska

Shell's Kulluk drill rig ran aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and it took salvage crews six days to recover it and begin towing it to safe harbor.

PA3 Jon Klingenberg/Coast Guard

Continuing months of mistakes and accidents in its effort to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, Shell on Dec. 31 lost control of its Kulluk drill rig, which ran aground in Alaska near Kodiak Island.

The rig was at the mercy of the north Pacific’s relentless waves for six days until salvage crews managed to attach a tow line and begin moving it to a safe harbor where they plan to assess how heavily it was damaged.

It’s almost as if Shell is working overtime to prove what we have said for years: Oil companies simply don’t have the ability to operate safely in the Arctic Ocean.

Shell recently towed the Kulluk into the notoriously stormy Gulf of Alaska and began moving it to Washington state for months of repairs and upgrades. When a winter cyclone hit with waves as tall as a four-story building, the rig was connected to two tugboats, each with a single towline.

One towline broke. After the remaining boat’s engines overheated and had to be shut down, the imperiled crew members had to cut the Kulluk loose to protect their own safety.

With no engines of its own, the Kulluk – which is nearly 30 years old – ran aground against the rocky shore of Sitkalidak Island. No one can say when the rig, holding about 143,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of toxic lubricants, might be recovered. Each day it remains aground with fuel in its tanks, the risk of a spill to this sensitive region grows.

Plenty of organizations and individual experts question the wisdom of Shell’s effort to drill in one of the most remote, challenging, and pristine places on Earth, but Shell is proving for itself that it has no business in the Arctic. In addition to the grounding, Shell’s oil spill containment dome collapsed like a beer can during sea trials; its Noble Discoverer drill rig slipped anchor and drifted out of control in Dutch Harbor last summer; and its fleet failed to meet air pollution standards.

When Shell attempted preliminary drilling in the Arctic Ocean last summer, it had to stop after only one day because a 12-by-30-mile ice floe was approaching.

There is an old saying in Alaska: Nature always wins.

Shell can’t beat nature. And it can’t be allowed to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

Note: The rig was safely recovered on January 8th.

Location of disabled rig

Watch a flyover of the site, footage courtesy of US Coast Guard

Explore an Interactive Timeline of Shell's Activities in the Arctic: