Shell Faces New Questions After Rig Runs Aground

After a massive oil rig ran aground near Kodiak, Alaska, Shell Oil again faces questions about its ambitious and expensive plans to drill for oil offshore in the Arctic. The rig doesn't hold any crude oil but carries more than 150,000 gallons of diesel and lube and hydraulic fluids. Drilling opponents claim the incident shows that fierce weather and daunting logistics make the Arctic unsafe for oil production.

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A massive deep-sea oil rig is still aground in shallow water near Kodiak Island in Alaska. The rig was being towed from its offshore drilling site in the Arctic to its winter harbor in Seattle when it broke loose in a fierce storm. It ran aground last night. Officials say the rig appears to be stable, and it does not leak any of its 150,000 gallons of diesel, lube oil or hydraulic fluids aboard.

But as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, there continues to be concern about potential environmental damage.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The oil rig Kulluk is key to Shell Oil's $4 billion Arctic oil and gas exploration effort in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. It's a specially designed rig, shaped round to deflect ice and built to withstand 40-foot seas when pulled from Seattle to the Arctic and back. But broken tow lines, stalled engines and failed attempts to attach and hold emergency lines sent the rig adrift yesterday. It crunched up against rocks in water as much as 48 feet deep and a third of a mile offshore.

LOIS EPSTEIN: The reality is that nature always wins in Alaska. And this incident clearly demonstrates that.

BERKES: Lois Epstein directs The Wilderness Society's Arctic program.

EPSTEIN: Shell thought they had everything under control. They thought they could move this $290 million piece of equipment under bad conditions, and they were wrong. That can certainly happen in the Arctic, and the repercussions could have been even more serious up there.

BERKES: The Kulluk ran aground in south central Alaska, far from its Arctic drilling site and close to company and Coast Guard assistance. But even that didn't help keep the drilling rig on course in a storm. Coast Guard aircraft flew above the rig today according to Captain Paul Mehler III who was coordinating the federal response.

CAPT. PAUL MEHLER III: The results of these overflights right now are showing us that Kulluk is sound. There is no sign of a breach at the hull, there is no sign of a release of any product.

BERKES: The rig has more than 150,000 gallons of diesel and other petroleum products aboard but no crude oil. Mehler says there is still risk of a spill, and he's trying to put salvage crews on the rig to get a better assessment of stability and any damage. Epstein of The Wilderness Society says endangered sea lions and other sensitive species and ecosystems are at risk. Curtis Smith is a spokesman for Shell Oil and asserts the incident does not diminish the company's commitment to drilling in the Arctic.

CURTIS SMITH: Obviously, this is a very unfortunate situation. But what would make it even more unfortunate is if we did not incorporate any learnings into our program going forward. And we're going to do that.

BERKES: But a forward Shell researcher says the incident is no surprise given the complexity of the task and the harshness of the Arctic and Alaska environments. Tad Patzek now chairs the Department of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

TAD PATZEK: My concern is that we are creating - or we have created - a complex system of multiple interlocking links in which everything has to work flawlessly for the whole system to execute properly. And as we know in practice, it never happens.

BERKES: More than 500 technicians and experts are now in Alaska, ready to respond to this incident to salvage the rig and to respond to any spill. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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