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Shell drilling rig grounds off Kodiak Island after towlines fail for 5th time

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By LISA DEMER — ldemer@adn.com

Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig, re-secured to two ships with towlines early Monday, grounded around 9 p.m. in rocky water off the southern coast of Kodiak Island during a pounding Gulf of Alaska winter storm, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

A command team that includes Shell briefed reporters on the disaster with the Kulluk late Monday night.

It broke loose from a Shell-contracted ship, the Aiviq, around 4:40 p.m. Monday Then around 8:15 p.m., the second tow ship, the borrowed Alert, was directed to lose its towline to avoid danger to the nine crew members aboard, according to the command team managing the crisis, which includes Shell, the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, and contractors.

No one was hurt, the Coast Guard said.

The command team numbers about 250 people and most are now based at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown because the operation was running out of room at Shell’s headquarters in Alaska, the Midtown Frontier Building.

When the Kulluk was cut loose from its final towline, it was four miles from land toward the south end of Kodiak Island, according to a written statement sent around 8:30 p.m. The grounding is the worst development yet in a crisis that began Thursday night when the $290 million, 266-foot-diameter Kulluk first lost a towline after the mechanical failure of a shackle used to connect it to the Aiviq.

Crews struggled against worsening weather and a mobile drilling unit that was unmanned with no propulsion capability of its own. The Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s 18-person crew on Saturday for their own safety as the floating rig bobbed in giant swells in the Gulf of Alaska. After that, there was no way for the Kulluk to drop anchor and avoid grounding, said Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya.

The crew had been trying to get the Kulluk to safe harbor on Kodiak Island but the storm, with huge swells and fierce winds, proved too much, Montoya said.

In a statement issued around 6 a.m. Monday, it was being held by towlines and was about 19 miles south of Kodiak.

“The safety of personnel and the environment remain the top priority,” the command team said in the

8:30 p.m. statement, announcing that the Kulluk was again adrift. “Difficult weather conditions are anticipated to continue throughout the day. Unified Command is considering all options.”

The statement did not specify options.

“This is an evolving situation,” the statement said. “More information will be released as it becomes available.”

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning Monday for the seas around Kodiak and said the marine conditions were hazardous. The forecast was for 36 foot seas, winds topping 60 mph and rain. But the rough seas were expected to ease by Tuesday.

As of late Monday afternoon, the unified command team planned to let the vessels wait out the incoming winter storm off the southern coast of Kodiak Island rather than attempt a move to a protected harbor that would be risky in severe weather, said Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosely.

Early Monday morning after a night adrift for the Kulluk, crews tethered it to the Shell-contracted Aiviq, a massive ship 360 feet long, as well as the Alert, a 140-foot Crowley Marine Services tug normally under contract to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.  The Alert was diverted from its work as part of Alyeska’s five-tug oil spill prevention and response fleet escorting oil tankers in Prince William Sound but the other tugs can handle the duties with no reduction in tanker traffic, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said.

Since the crisis began Thursday, the Kulluk has lost towlines to various ships at least five times, including on Sunday when it broke free of two ships, the Aiviq and another Shell-contracted vessel, the Nanuq. The $200 million Aiviq early Friday lost power to all four engines, which then were repaired and fully restarted by Saturday. The Aiviq was specifically built for Shell’s controversial drilling operations offshore in the Alaska Arctic. It is owned by Edison Chouest of Louisiana.

On Monday, crews were able to use a grappling hook to take up the loose end of a long line that was still attached on the other end to the Kulluk. Another line had been attached as a backup and was floating on a buoy and secured at the other end to the Kulluk. That was not one of the lines that broke on Sunday, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

But the Kulluk lost both lines.

Shell began exploratory drilling this fall in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas under sharp criticism from environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups. The critics say Shell is ill-prepared for challenging work in harsh conditions, and that government regulators have failed to require the latest and best technologies.

In Shell’s case, its unique oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing, and another drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, experienced a series of problems. It dragged anchor in Dutch Harbor, suffered a small fire in its smokestack and was cited by the Coast Guard for safety and pollution control issues.

“We’ve got a pattern of failures,” said Carl Wassilie, a Yup’ik Eskimo who coordinates a grass-roots group called Alaska’s Big Village Network and helped organize a protest Monday outside the Frontier Building, Shell’s Alaska headquarters. “I’m saying no, there’s no way that I can see any feasibility of drilling in the Arctic, especially with the extreme conditions that we’re seeing, not only with Mother Nature right now but also just the technical aspects of the failures that we’re seeing with the fleet.”

Shell responded that it has backup plans that kick in when problems emerge and that the actual drilling operations this year proceeded safely.

“Flawless operations remain the goal,” Smith said earlier on Monday. “But being a responsible operator also means putting contingencies in place when operations do not go as planned. We have done that.”

That includes calling in other vessels during the Kulluk emergency, he said. Shell now has four vessels on scene, and the Coast Guard brought in a cutter, the Alex Haley, the buoy tender Spar, as well as helicopters. On Monday, the Coast Guard flew a small crew to the evacuated Kulluk to inspect the towlines but they reportedly didn’t stay on long.

The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor the afternoon of Dec. 21 under tow by the Aiviq, headed to the Seattle area for off-season maintenance. The weather forecast for the next few days was typical, even a bit tame, for winter along the Aleutian chain and into the Gulf of Alaska: Winds of 17 to 35 mph, seas of 7 to 15 feet.

“Toward Kodiak Island, there was nothing of real significance,” said Sam Albanese, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “It was a pretty benign forecast.”

But by the afternoon of Dec. 25, the outlook had shifted from a prediction of more gale-force winds to a near storm at sea with winds topping 50 mph, he said.

And that’s what hit the Kulluk and the Aiviq last week.

By Saturday night, the winds were near hurricane force, the Coast Guard said.

Still, traffic along the busy shipping lanes through the Gulf of Alaska that connect Asia to North America continued during the heavy seas and storm, the Coast Guard’s Mosley said.

“We have ships coming through this area daily,” he said.

Over the past week or so, no ship captains alerted the Coast Guard that they were diverting course along the Aleutians or around Kodiak Island to avoid the rough seas take refuge in a safe harbor, he said. Ships typically keep the Coast Guard posted if they detour.

But a ship towing a heavy, conical rig like the Kulluk, with a derrick 160-feet tall, has a far more difficult task than one propelling only itself.

The Kulluk was designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters. It has an ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull to deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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Vigor Announces ULSTEIN’s SX151 Design in the United States

ULSTEIN has over time been cooperating with the American shipbuilding group Vigor Industrial in the development of the conceptual design for a coastguard vessel (OPC – Offshore Patrol Cutter). Vigor is now announcing ULSTEIN’s SX151 design in the United States as part of a campaign aimed at the U.S. Coast Guard, that plans to renew its fleet with up to 25 new ships.

In response to the U.S. Coast Guard’s demanding Offshore Patrol Cutter requirements, Vigor Industrial looked beyond the conventional. With the Ulstein X-BOW®, Vigor delivers unmatched seakeeping and endurance in a capable offshore workhorse”, states Vigor in their campaign «Affordable Innovation. Proven performance.»

We have worked together with Vigor for two years, and have developed a concept we have great faith in. The ship is 100 metres long and 16.4 metres wide and has a top speed of 22 knots. A typical operating speed can vary from 5 to 22 knots, and the ship is therefore equipped with a combined diesel mechanic / diesel electric propulsion system. The ship accommodates 124 persons, is equipped with a helicopter deck and hangar, and a hangar for three rescue boats,” says Deputy CEO, Tore Ulstein, responsible for Market and Innovation in Ulstein Group.

This is a long-term project: “Several yards are currently sending their prospects to the Coast Guard. Towards the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015, the Coast Guard will award the contract”, says Ulstein.

Shipbuilding Tribune – Vigor Announces ULSTEIN’s SX151 Design in the United States.

APNewsBreak: US oil spill plan prepares for Cuba >>> “show me the Plan”

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By JENNIFER KAY, Associated Press – 2 days ago

MIAMI (AP) — If a future oil spill in the Caribbean Sea threatens American shores, a new federal plan obtained by The Associated Press would hinge on cooperation from neighboring foreign governments. Now that Cuba is the neighbor drilling for oil, cooperation is hard to guarantee.

The International Offshore Response Plan draws on lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and was created to stop offshore oil spills as close to their source as possible, even in foreign waters. The plan dated Jan. 30 has not been released publicly. The AP obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request.

After crude oil stained Gulf Coast beaches, state and federal officials are eager to head off even the perception of oil spreading toward the coral reefs, beaches and fishing that generate tens of billions of tourist dollars for Florida alone.

The plan comes as Spanish oil company Repsol YPF conducts exploratory drilling in Cuban waters and the Bahamas considers similar development for next year. Complicating any oil spill response in the Florida Straits, though, is the half-century of tension between the U.S. and its communist neighbor 90 miles south of Florida.

Under the plan dated Jan. 30, the Coast Guard’s Miami-based 7th District would take the lead in responding to a spill affecting U.S. waters, which includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The district’s operations cover 15,000 miles of coastline and share borders with 34 foreign countries and territories.

Repsol’s operations in Cuban waters are not subject to U.S. authority, but the company allowed U.S. officials to inspect its rig and review its own oil spill response plan.

“We’ve demonstrated already and we continue to demonstrate that we’re a safe, responsible operator doing all in its power to carry out a transparent and safe operation,” Respol spokesman Kristian Rix said Thursday.

Rix declined to elaborate on the company’s response plans, but he did say two minor recommendations made by U.S. officials inspecting the rig were immediately put in place.

If an oil spill began in Cuban waters, Cuba would be responsible for any spill cleanup and efforts to prevent damage to the U.S., but the Coast Guard would respond as close as possible.

Though a 50-year-old embargo bars most American companies from conducting business with Cuba and limits communication between the two governments, the Coast Guard and private response teams have licenses from the U.S. government to work with Cuba and its partners if a disaster arises.

The U.S. and Cuba have joined Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica since November in multilateral discussions about how the countries would notify each other about offshore drilling problems, said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of planning, readiness, and response for the 7th District.

He said channels do exist for U.S. and Cuban officials to communicate about spills, including the Caribbean Island Oil Pollution Response and Cooperation Plan. That’s a nonbinding agreement, though, so the Coast Guard has begun training crews already monitoring the Cuban coastline for drug and migrant smuggling to keep an eye out for problems on the Repsol rig.

William Reilly, co-chairman of the national commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill and head of the EPA during President George H.W. Bush, said the Coast Guard generated goodwill in Cuba by notifying its government of potential risks to the island during the 2010 spill.

It would be hard for the Cuban government to keep any spill secret if Repsol and other private companies were responding, Slaughter said.

“Even if we assume the darkest of dark and that the Cuban government wouldn’t notify us, we’d hear through industry chatter and talk. If the companies were notified, I’m quite confident we would get a phone call before they fly out their assets,” he said.

Funding for a U.S. response to a foreign spill would come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund managed by the Coast Guard. As of Feb. 29, that fund contained $2.4 billion.

The plan covers many lessons learned from the 2010 spill, like maintaining a roster of “vessels of opportunity” for hire and making sure the ships that are skimming and burning oil offshore can store or treat oily water for extended periods of time. Other tactics, like laying boom, have been adapted for the strong Gulf Stream current flowing through the Florida Straits.

What the plan doesn’t cover is the research on how an oil spill might behave in the straits, said Florida International University professor John Proni, who’s leading a group of university and federal researchers studying U.S. readiness for oil spills.

Among the unknowns are the effect of dispersants on corals and mangroves, how oil travels in the major currents, the toxicity of Cuban and how to determine whether oil washing ashore in the U.S. came from Cuba.

“My view is that the Coast Guard has developed a good plan but it’s based on existing information,” so it’s incomplete, he said.

Former Amoco Oil Latin America president Jorge Pinon, now an oil expert at the University of Texas, said the Coast Guard had a solid plan.

He cautioned against recent congressional legislation introduced by one of South Florida’s three Cuban-American representatives to curtail drilling off Cuba by sanctioning those who help them do it. The bill is sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

Instead, Pinon said the U.S. needs to formalize agreements with Cuba about who would be in command if an oil well blew, because the U.S. has more resources available.

“The issue is not to stop the spill from reaching Florida waters, the issue is capping the well and shutting it down,” Pinon said. “We can play defense all we want, but we don’t want to play defense, we want to play offense, we want to cap the well.”

Reilly said the U.S. still needs to issue permits for equipment in the U.S. that would be needed if a Cuban well blew, Reilly said. For example, if a blowout occurred, the company would have to get a capping stack from Scotland, which could take up to a week.

“We know from Macondo that a great deal can happen in a week,” Reilly said. “I’ve been very concerned about getting the sanctions interpreted in a way that permits us to exercise some common sense.”

Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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What if… Is The US Prepared For Cuban Oil Rigs?

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By John Konrad On January 10, 2012

Will the United States be prepared if Cuba’s new offshore rigs spill oil into US waters?

To address this question, personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) completed a review today of the offshore oil rig Scarabeo 9 following an invitation from the vessel’s operator, Repsol. While aboard the Scarabeo 9, personnel reviewed vessel construction, drilling equipment, and safety systems  in anticipation of the rig’s upcoming drilling operations in Cuba’s exclusive economic zone in the coming months.

According to the Coast Guard, the  review is “consistent with U.S. efforts to minimize the possibility of a major oil spill, which would hurt U.S. economic and environmental interests”. While US regulators exercise no legal or regulatory authority over the rig, the review compared the vessel with applicable international safety and security standards as well as U.S. standards for drilling units operating in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. U.S. personnel found the vessel to generally comply with existing international and U.S. standards by which Repsol has pledged to abide.

In anticipation of an increase in drilling activities in the Caribbean Basin and Gulf of Mexico, the United States is participating in multilateral discussions with the Cuba as well as other countries nearby including Bahamas, Jamaica and Mexico on issues including, drilling safety and oil spill preparedness. The Coast Guard views the cooperation as providing valuable information on each country’s spill response plans and capabilities. The Coast Guard is also working to update contingency plans for spills on international waters that could potentially affect U.S. waters and coastline.

In addition to international cooperation, the USCG and BSEE have involved more than 80 federal, state, local, and maritime industry representatives in spill response plans. The group held a table top exercise on Nov. 18, 2011 to address a hypothetical international spill off the coast of Florida. The exercise allowed participants to discuss sensitive environmental areas, planning strategies, likely issues and response coordination principles that responders would face, as well as gather additional information to use in future planning.

The USCG notes the review conducted today does not confer any form of certification or endorsement under U.S. or international law.

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  2. Too Close For Comfort – U.S. To Inspect Cuban Rig
  3. Oil Spill-Containment Companies: So can we operate in Cuban waters?
  4. US Completes Review of Drilling Rig Headed for Cuba
  5. Coast Guard Prepares for International Offshore Drilling Close to our Shores

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