Efforts to save grounded Shell Arctic rig postponed

Footage showed rescue teams dropping supplies onto the stranded rig last week

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Attempts to rescue a Shell drill rig grounded off the Alaskan coast have been delayed because of high seas and strong winds.

The rig, named Kulluk, ran aground on Monday after drifting in stormy weather as it was being towed.

The rig is grounded on the south-east side of Sitkalidak Island.

The US Coast Guard said the rig, carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of other oil products, appears stable.

A Coast Guard plane and helicopter flew over the Kulluk on Tuesday to assess the rig and said it did not appear to be leaking.

"There is no sign of a release of any product," Coast Guard Capt Paul Mehler said.

He said a team made up of Shell, Coast Guard and local officials aimed to get salvagers aboard the Kulluk to assess it and then refloat the rig.

Endangered species

Shell has said that the design of the Kulluk - with fuel tanks isolated in the centre of the vessel and encased in heavy steel - means that a significant spill is unlikely.

Analysis

This is more a story about reputational risk than environmental risk.

The oil on the Kulluk potentially threatens populations of salmon, sea lions and sea otters. But the amount of fuel - about 140,000 gallons - is tiny compared with the big Arctic spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, which poured tens of millions of gallons into the sea.

Shell says its record in the Arctic is good. It says it will investigate the incident and learn from it.

But the firm's offshore Arctic programme has already suffered from delays and regulatory problems. And environmentalists are saying the incident proves that it is too risky to drill in the far North.

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However, spill response equipment was being prepared in the event of a leak in the area which is home to at least two endangered species, as well as harbour seals, salmon and sea lions.

Environmentalists have said the incident illustrates the risk of drilling for oil in a fragile region.

"Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska's weather and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during transit," Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society told Reuters.

The rig was being moved for maintenance and upgrades when it broke away from one of its tow-lines on Monday afternoon.

Its 18-member crew had already been evacuated by the Coast Guard on Saturday because of the risk of storms.

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, could not explain why the Kulluk had been caught in the weather.

"I can't give you a specific answer, but I do not believe we would want to tow it in these sorts of conditions," he said.

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