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Drilling Rig's Thick Hull Helps Prevent Oil Spill


The Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground off Alaska last week is now anchored in a quiet harbor so divers can assess the damage. Wildlife officials say they have seen no evidence of a spill from the vessel, which was carrying tanks of diesel fuel. But the accident does raise questions about Shell's plans to drill for oil in the remote and fragile ecosystem of the Arctic.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: When towboats lost control of this massive drilling rig during a big storm, it seemed possible that the story would end in calamity. Shell had spent $300 million outfitting this rig to work in the icy Arctic, and as it sat on the rocks, pounded by punishing waves, the worst-case scenario for Shell looked pretty bad. But yesterday, after officials decided it was still seaworthy, a tugboat managed to pluck it off the rocks with relative ease.

RICHARD BURKE: Sometimes you get lucky.

HARRIS: Richard Burke is a former marine-salvage operator, now at the SUNY Maritime College. He says the rig's thick hull - built for ice - apparently helped it stand up to a week of winds and swells that could have destroyed a weaker vessel. And through it all, the Kulluk's hull apparently remained intact - a big plus for its recovery.

BURKE: Usually, it's harder. But I'm sure the salvage master is very happy with this outcome.

HARRIS: Shell also breathed a big sigh of relief, though the story is far from over. The Kulluk was on its way to Seattle for maintenance. And once it ran aground, large waves damaged parts of the vessel's superstructure. Seawater also found its way into the rig's diesel generators, apparently through open hatches. Burke says if there is damage to the steal hull, that's often not too difficult to fix, as long as the vessel can get to a dry dock.

BURKE: The real problem is going to be machinery and electrical damage, because those components can be difficult to replace. They're expensive, and they're - and sometimes there's a long lead time to get them.

HARRIS: If repairs take more than a few months, Shell may not be able to resume its exploratory drilling in the Arctic next summer. And hardware damage isn't the only problem Shell faces. There's also damage to its reputation. Environmental activists and some members of Congress are asking the Obama administration to investigate and re-think letting oil companies operate in the fragile Arctic.

Eleanor Huffines, with the Pew Environment Group in Anchorage, says Shell was fortunate that this rig ran aground near Kodiak Island, Alaska, where there is a major Coast Guard base. If the accident had occurred in the distant Arctic Ocean, the response would have been far slower and less robust, she says.

ELEANOR HUFFINES: It's a thousand miles from the drilling sites, at a minimum. And so the Coast Guard has made - take some small steps forward to put seasonal equipment up in the Arctic. But we have a lot more to do to be spill-response ready.

HARRIS: Pew and other groups are hoping to navigate the delicate politics of Washington, D.C. to press for tighter regulations on Arctic drilling.

HUFFINES: While there may be support for drilling, the expectations are that we should be leaders. We should demonstrate that we can do this safely and protect the communities and the ecosystem at the same time.

HARRIS: A spokesman for Shell says it's too early to say whether the incident will, in fact, affect the company's plans to keep exploring for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Curtis Smith is at Shell Alaska.

CURTIS SMITH: We have a long history of working offshore Alaska, and we are proud of that. But when something like this happens, you have to own it. You have to learn from it, and we certainly will.

HARRIS: There are always things you can do to improve operations. But Richard Burke, at the SUNY Maritime College, says some things you just can't fix.

BURKE: This is a very, very adverse environment. It's one of the worst pieces of water in the world. It's not uncommon for tows to break loose from towing vessels under such conditions.

HARRIS: That will be on everyone's minds when it's time to hook up another tow line to the Kulluk so it can continue its journey south to Seattle.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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