Beaufort Sea, © NOAA

No Way to Ring in the New Year: Grounded Ship Reminds us of the Danger of Drilling in the Arctic Ocean

Forty foot waves.  60 mile-per-hour winds.  Freezing temperatures.  A fragile, pristine environment.  As if we needed another example of why drilling in the Arctic Ocean is a very bad idea, we sure got one when the Shell drilling ship Kulluk ran aground on Monday.

The problems began last Thursday, when the Kulluk, a conical Arctic drilling ship on its way to Seattle for repairs, broke away from its towing vessel and was set adrift.  Things only got worse from there:  The tow vessel, Aiviq, lost function in all four of its engines due to mechanical issues.  This is the vessel Shell heralded as a symbol of its commitment to doing things right in the Arctic. It is the vessel company president and CEO Gary Chouest described as “the world’s largest and most powerful anchor-handling icebreaker.”  It was designed to operate in minus-40 degrees and is apparently a state of the art vessel. And yet it could not keep control of Kulluk.  As winter seas continued to pummel the drill ship and its now two attendant tow vessels, the Coast Guard was called in to evacuate all of the Kulluk’s crew members.

But the Kulluk wasn’t just carrying crew members.  While the ship pitched up and down in the icy waters, about 150,000 gallons of fuel were sloshing around inside it, too, in the form of sulfur diesel, hydraulic fluid, and lube oil.  In effect, the Kulluk was an oil spill waiting to happen.

By Monday afternoon, the Kulluk was reattached to a repaired Aiviq and a new tow vessel, Alert. The ships were headed for safe port in Kodiak to weather the storm.  But the relentlessly rough water separated the Kulluk from the Aiviq, forcing the crew of the Alert to sever their line, as well.  Kulluk was adrift again, and this time, grounding was all but inevitable.  The ship ran aground around 9 pm on New Year’s Eve on a small island off the coast of Kodiak.

As of this writing, there have been no reports of leakage from the ship or oil sheen on the water.  But the event serves to remind us that drilling attempts in the Arctic will be costly and difficult at best and an environmental tragedy at worst.

Polar bears and other large mammals could suffer damage to their eyes, mouth, skin and lungs from petroleum exposure. Like bird feathers, polar bear fur loses its insulating and water-repelling properties when coated with oil.

This time, the Kodiak Coast Guard station was close enough to respond quickly, with plenty of helping hands and the right equipment. The Coast Guard station can also provide a base for personnel to coordinate efforts or to hunker down when the weather gets too bad to send response vessels.   But the drill sites in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas are over 1,000 miles away from Kodiak, and there’s no Coast Guard station nearer than that.  Shell claims their spill response ship Arctic Challenger can contain an underwater leak, but external support could take days or weeks to reach an out of control vessel, or even worse, a spill.

If something like the 2010 BP Oil Spill were to occur in the Arctic Ocean, the environmental damage would be truly unimaginable: iconic arctic species like whales, polar bears and walruses could all suffer. There is also a huge risk of damaging the intricate and pristine ecology of the Arctic Ocean in ways we don’t fully understand yet.  Combine that with the danger to spill response crews, and it’s hard to believe Shell is willing to risk drilling in the Arctic Ocean at all.

This latest fiasco with the Kulluk could have been a New Year’s oil spill.  The incident surely shows that Shell, even with state of the art equipment, cannot  prevent accidents in the remote Arctic. We can only hope that this and Shell’s other recent travails will convince lawmakers and the administration to put an end to offshore drilling in the Arctic before it’s too late.

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