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Rig grounded off Alaska ready to be towed

By CNN Staff
January 7, 2013 -- Updated 0337 GMT (1137 HKT)
  • NEW: Recovery is expected to begin Monday, possibly earlier if conditions are favorable
  • NEW: The rig will be taken about 30 miles north of its current position to Kiliuda Bay
  • There are "no visible signs" of a fuel leak, officials say
  • The drilling rig ran aground several days ago off Alaska's southern coast

(CNN) -- A Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling barge that ran aground last week off southern Alaska is ready to be towed, officials said Sunday.

Inclement weather had hampered earlier efforts to connect a tow line to the Kulluk rig so it can be moved about 30 miles north to Kiliuda Bay, where authorities plan to make a more thorough assessment.

By Sunday night, the main tow line was attached. Recovery is expected to begin Monday, though it could begin earlier if conditions are favorable throughout the night, according to an update on the response effort's official website.

The effort consists of a "unified command" including Shell, the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska's state environmental conservation department, Noble Drilling and the borough of Kodiak Island.

Coast Guard crews continue to battle the elements to provide assistance to the crews of the Kulluk and its four support vessels, Aiviq, Nanuq, Guardsman and Alert on Monday, December 31. Coast Guard crews continue to battle the elements to provide assistance to the crews of the Kulluk and its four support vessels, Aiviq, Nanuq, Guardsman and Alert on Monday, December 31.
Crews battle harsh weather
Crews in Alaska fight elements Crews in Alaska fight elements

The 266-foot diameter Kulluk was being towed back to its winter home in Seattle when it ran into a severe storm December 28 off the Alaskan coast. The Coast Guard evacuated the rig's 18-man crew the next day, and it drifted for 10 hours the next day after the tug that was towing it lost power.

On Monday night -- New Year's Eve -- tug crews had to cut the rig loose during a storm that whipped up 24-foot waves. That led to its grounding off uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, about 200 miles south of Anchorage, in an area where water is 32 to 48 feet deep.

Most of the nearby shore is owned by a native Alaskan corporation on adjacent Kodiak Island, according to Steven Russell, an official with Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation. State officials are working with residents to assess any environmental impact caused by the grounding.

Coast Guard: No leaks from grounded rig

A Sunday update noted no visible signs of leaks thus far. Sean Churchfield, the incident commander and operations manager for Shell Alaska, said the previous day the rig's fuel tanks appear intact, and naval architects report the vessel is sound and fit to tow.

"Currently, the Kulluk recovery operation does not pose any environmental threat that would preclude (the Tanner Crab Fishery and others) from opening," said Russell.

As much as 150,000 gallons of ultra low sulfur diesel and approximately 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products are on board the Kulluk -- a double-hulled steel vessel with a helicopter landing pad and tower in the middle designed for drilling in Arctic waters.

All the fuel was to power equipment and did not come from drilling operations. The rig had been working in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska's North Slope, which is on the other side of the vast state from where it now rests.

Shell's Arctic exploration plans caused widespread concern among environmentalists and were held up after BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell says it's working at far less depth and lower pressures than the BP well that erupted off Louisiana, killing 11 men aboard and unleashing an undersea gusher that took three months to cap.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates more than 90 billion barrels of oil and nearly 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be recoverable by drilling in the North Slope. And the shrinking of the region's sea ice -- which hit record lows in 2012 -- has created new opportunities for energy exploration in the region.

Climate researchers say that a decrease in sea ice is a symptom of a warming climate, caused largely by the combustion of carbon-rich fossil fuels. The science is politically controversial but generally accepted as fact by most scientists.

CNN's Melissa Gray, Matt Smith, Dana Ford and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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