Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Royally Shelled

By Chris Philips

On January 1, 2013 the Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) drilling rig Kulluk went aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska when the towing line failed while the rig was being towed from Dutch Harbor to Seattle by the Shell-owned and operated towing vessel Aiviq. The Kulluk had on board approximately 144,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 16,000 gallons of lube oils and hydraulic fluid. Several attempts at reattaching the tow were not successful, in part due to heavy weather. A week later the weather was calmer and the Aiviq was reconnected and towed the Kulluk to Kiliuda Bay, 30 nautical miles away, where its condition was being evaluated before continuing on to Seattle.

Last year, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council (www.pwsrcac.org) commissioned an escort winch, towline and tether system analysis. The report, produced by Vancouver, BC naval architecture firm Robert Allan and Associates, was released in early August of 2012.

The study found that the absence of a working load render-recover capability is considered a deficiency in a modern escort capable tug, especially one operating in higher sea-states.

With the increasing use of HMPE (high-molecular-weight polyethylene) lines, which have very little “stretch”, winch braking systems have evolved to the point where render-recover capable winches are required as the virtual “fuse” in the system. Finally, the study concluded, “the vast majority of operators agree that the electric-driven Markey Render-Recover© winch is the best winch technology on the market today.”

Although Shell has not responded to numerous requests for information on the outfitting of the vessel, a Markey spokesman said the Aiviq, launched late last year, was not equipped with render/recover winches. We suspect that the lines attaching the two Royal Dutch Shell vessels were HMPE (again, Shell doesn’t want to talk about it).

Two massive vessels tethered by HMPE lines without the “fuse” of a modern winch system were destined to part. Fortunately, the loss and subsequent retrieval of the Kulluk resulted in no discernible environmental damage, no loss of life, and little if any operational downtime, as the rig was on her way to overwinter in Seattle. On the other hand, the ensuing media frenzy over the incident will have far-reaching implications.

The US West Coast is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and the industries that work alongside those resources, most notably the Jones-act commercial fleet of tugs, barges, cargo and passenger vessels are clean, safe and responsible. The West Coast fleet is equipped to deal with the particularly fierce North Pacific winter storms, and the “battle-hardened” mariners operating those vessels know when it’s safe to move a tow, and when it’s prudent to stay in port or at anchor. The equipment on West Coast vessels is built to take the abuse of the weather, including the deck equipment used to successfully assist and moor fully laden tankers. All the groundwork laid by the West Coast commercial maritime community to assure the public that our operations are safe and responsible is threatened by the careless or negligent actions of a big company using substandard equipment with little accountability.

When the Aiviq was launched, Shell Alaska VP, Pete Slaiby said the vessel is “… a symbol of how Shell is approaching the Arctic.” If this foray is an indication of Shell’s approach, the company should hire some West Coast experts to advise them on equipment and procedures.