As New Year’s Eve 2012 approached, Shell Oil decided to tow a huge oil rig right through the teeth of a winter storm into the Gulf of Alaska. The decision risked the lives of the 18 contractors aboard and bore terrifying resemblances to the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon disasters.
Among the motivating factors was a callous desire to avoid taxes. This was all made clear in a US Coast Guard report issued Thursday.
One of the legacies of the Exxon Valdez spill, 25 years ago last month, is that redundant safety systems are required for oil tankers in the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Unfortunately, such attention to safety was not paid to Kulluk by Shell or its contractor, Edison Chouest of Louisiana. The Coast Guard faults the contractor for lack of experience in the stormy Gulf of Alaska and for using just one tow vessel for the non-self-propelled, conical drilling unit, which had “little directional stability when under tow.”
Contradicting earlier denials, Shell Alaska representative Sean Churchfield admitted in May 2013 that avoiding Alaska state taxes that would have come due in January 2013 played a role in Shell’s decision to move the Kulluk when it did.
Despite Shell’s claim of a favorable forecast, then Representative, (now Senator) Ed Markey (D-MA) pointed out that the National Weather Service predicted the fierce gales in which the Kulluk, and its tow vessel Aiviq, foundered.
The Kulluk had a crew of 18 on board, and the Coast Guard’s report describes the harrowing and heroic efforts made by Guardsmen to save the lives that Shell nearly lost: “Each helicopter flight required hoists using the rescue basket to take one person off the deck at a time in deteriorating weather conditions. The helicopter evacuation required three flights with each.”
Thanks to the Coast Guard, the Kulluk crew was saved in December 2012. But Shell’s willingness to risk the lives of its contractors for the sake of a tax break is reminiscent of the corner- and cost-cutting by BP managers. It was those sloppy and cheap fixes that led to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, which claimed the lives of 11 workers and touched off a well blowout that has significantly altered the marine environment of the gulf.
The Coast Guard report is another reminder that Shell is unfit to operate in the fragile Arctic environment. Greed and incompetence are a terrible combination anywhere, but we cannot allow the Arctic to be threatened by a company ready to risk lives for a tax brea
Top image: Waves crash over the conical drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, January 1, 2013.