An oil rig owned by Shell PLC has arrived at an Alaskan harbour for inspection after being salvaged from the site where it was grounded on New Year’s Eve.

Shell’s Kulluk rig ran aground on December 31st, when stormy seas caused the boat to come loose from the two tug boats that had been towing the rig to Seattle for general maintenance. The rig crashed on the shores of an uninhabited island off the southern coast of Alaska, where it remained for almost a week while salvage crews waited for better weather conditions.

The Kulluk was one of several rigs owned by Shell that are involved in Shell’s  $5 billion attempt to re-ignite oil production off the coast of Alaska, in regions that have not been drilled for more than twenty years. Shell’s Alaskan mission has been criticised by both environmental organizations and political entities, who argue that Alaska’s extreme weather conditions make the chance of accidents, fuel leaks and equipment malfunction far more likely.

On Sunday evening, salvage tug boats returned to the stranded vessel and was able to refloat the rig by about 10pm. The Kulluk was then towed to Kiliuda Bay with an accompaniment of tug boats, oil spill response vessels and the US Coast Guard.

It is not yet known how long the Kulluk will remain anchored in Kiliuda Bay. The rig is expected to undergo extensive inspections to assess whether the damage caused was reparable. The operations manager for Shell Alaska, Sean Churchfield, has said that Shell cannot say what further actions will be taken until after the Kulluk has been assessed.

The rig was carrying approximately 150 000 gallons of oil at the time of the incident. However, there are no signs of any oil spill in the area where the rig ran aground, as confirmed by both the Coast Guard and an oil spill response team that accompanied the tug boats in the salvage of the ship.

As expected, this incident  has raised more eyebrows over Shell’s Alaskan drilling operations, and a number of environmental groups have already cited the incident in an attempt to pressurize the federal government to halt the project.  Maritime analyst Lysle Briner, however, has said that he expects Shell to continue with operations as planned. The successful towing operation means that the Kulluk is more than likely salvageable, said Brinker, and may even prove that the rig can withstand harsh weather conditions.


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