Alaska Dropped Ball on Runaway Shell Vessel
State Focused on Capacity of Towing Vessel to be Towed, Not on Its Ability to Tow
Washington, DC — The State of Alaska’s oil spill prevention requirements did not cover the towing capacity for the ship that lost the Royal Dutch Shell PLC drilling vessel that recently ran aground, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, the state only looks at the ability of the towing ship to be towed itself.
In the last days of 2012 seeking to escape an intense Arctic Ocean storm, the 360-foot Aiviq, a ship under contract to Shell, lost its towline with the 266-foot-wide Kulluk. Aiviq then suffered a complete engine shutdown. The Kulluck went adrift and ended up on the rocky shores of the remote, unpopulated Sitkalidak Island. While the Kulluck was ultimately recovered, it suffered undetermined damages.
Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill response and a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, submitted a public records request to the state on January 5th asking for documents on “the towing system on the Aiviq, including specifications of its towing winch, tow lines, and all associated equipment.” In a reply dated January 8, Gary Mendivil, from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, explained that the ability of Aiviq to tow a vessel was never examined because Shell –
“…wanted the flexibility of using the vessels carrying oil as cargo (e.g. transporting fuel from Dutch Harbor to other support vessels in the drilling arena, etc.) Tank vessel plans require information about towing equipment on the vessels for its rescue but, because most tank vessels aren’t towing vessels or anchor handlers, we do not address in the C-plans [Contingency plans] anything about towing capabilities of the vessels themselves. Therefore, the department does not have any information or detail in the C-plan regarding the Aiviq’s towing capabilities, towing winches, tow lines, or associated equipment.” [Emphasis in original; citations omitted]
“In other words, the state only looked at what Shell told them to look at, not what was most important – the towing capability of the Aiviq,” said Steiner, who previously uncovered that there had been no realistic testing of the well-head capping stack system which Shell proposes to use to respond to blow-outs in Arctic waters. “This latest episode underlines the continued inadequacy of official contingency planning when it comes to Arctic conditions that demand we expect the unexpected.”
PEER is also suing the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the agency overseeing offshore oil and gas operations, to force public release of the safeguards required to protect against such known hazards as sea ice, subsurface ice scour and blowouts, as well as specifications for well design and well integrity control.
“As events unfold, the more that is learned about the true state of preparations against environmental disaster in Arctic waters, the more scared everyone should become,” state PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the State of Alaska repeatedly proclaims its commitment to “responsible Arctic development” by requiring “Best Available Technology” in offshore operations, a standard misplaced for the runaway Kulluk. “Alaska learned the hard way that trusting Shell can come back to bite them.”