Wed January 2, 2013
Around the Nation

Oil Drilling Rig Runs Aground In Alaska

Originally published on Wed January 2, 2013 11:16 am



Let's turn now to a developing story in Alaska. A crew is trying to get aboard a massive oil drilling rig that ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska. Workers have already been evacuated and there is no risk of an oil spill here, but the rig is carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. The rig is a key component of Shell Oil's controversial efforts to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean, and joining us now with the latest on the situation in Alaska is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Richard, good morning and thanks for coming in.


GREENE: So this rig actually ran aground on Monday night. What's going on? What's happened since then?

HARRIS: Well, the good news, it's still upright in the water.

GREENE: That's good news.

HARRIS: And as far as they can tell, there is not diesel fuel leaking out of it right now, but they really have not been able to get close to really take a good look and determine the damage. They tried twice yesterday to fly people out by helicopter to land on the rig, but the weather there is just crazy. It was like 40 foot waves, 50 mile an hour winds with gusts higher than that, so the idea of landing somebody on a helicopter on this rig was - they said forget about it.

They hope the weather forecast is better today. They're hoping they'll be able to get people out onto that rig so they can actually assess the damage, but right now they, you know, can only look at it from afar.

GREENE: Okay. So no risk of injuries, workers have been evacuated, people are trying to get aboard this thing to figure out exactly what's going on. You said no leaks so far, which makes you think that there might not be any environmental damage at this point. But what is the environmental risk and where is this? Is it a sensitive area up there?

HARRIS: Well, fortunately, it's not in the Arctic Ocean, which was where this rig was drilling in the summertime. This is actually fairly close to Anchorage. It's in the Gulf of Alaska, and the good news there is there are much better resources. There's a Coast Guard facility. There are, you know, tugboats, all sorts of other infrastructure there so they can actually get to this and really try to deal with this problem.

So that's the good news. But Alaska wildlife officials are concerned because there are endangered species out there, including an endangered seal, and of course Alaska cares a great deal about its fisheries, salmon and so on. And there are native villages not too far from there, and so there are a whole pile of concerns. But again, this is not an oil tanker full of oil. This is an oil rig that has 140,000 gallons of diesel, which is - you know, no fuel is good to spill.

But it's a relatively small quantity and it's not nearly as bad a crude oil.

GREENE: And important distinction to make, it sounds like. Take us back to Monday night. I mean why did this thing run aground?

HARRIS: Well, the rig is called the Kulluk and what happened was they were trying to tow it from Dutch Harbor, which is in the Aleutian Islands, down to Seattle for servicing, and they hit really bad weather. It's a long voyage. It's three or four weeks. They can't forecast that far ahead so they didn't really know what to expect out in the sea and they hit near hurricane force winds - huge, you know, 70 foot waves. I mean it was just - it really, really bad weather.

The tow rope got disconnected one way or the other. They don't know exactly how. The tugboats then ran into trouble that were trying to help it. It was adrift for a while. They had it back under control for a little while, but then in the end they realized that the tow boats were being towed into the rocks. They let it go. It went into the rocks and that's kind of where we are right now.

GREENE: Well, in the few seconds we have left, I mean there's a huge international competition to try and drill up there in the Arctic. How big a blow is this to Shell?

HARRIS: This could be a big setback for Shell, depending upon whether they can either repair this or replace this. They were hoping to be back next summer to finally get some of those holes drilled, and it's not at all clear at this point whether they'll be able to do that.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Richard Harris, thanks for coming in.


GREENE: He was updating us on an oil drilling rig that has run aground in the Gulf of Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.