Shell's Arctic oil rig runs aground in Alaska

In another example of why drilling for oil in the Arctic is such a monumentally bad idea, Shell’s drilling rig, the Kulluk, has run aground off the island of Sitkalidak, near Kodiak in Alaska.

The ancient rig was being towed back to harbour after a spectacularly unsuccessful summer drilling season when it ran into serious trouble and hit the shore.

Last Thursday the Kulluk was being towed from the Arctic by Shell’s brand new $200 million tug the Aiviq when it hit heavy weather in the Bering Sea that caused the 400 foot towing line to break and the rig to drift free.

By Friday the Aiviq managed to reconnect with the Kulluk, but it “experienced multiple engines failures” 50 miles south of Kodiak Island, causing the rig to drift free once again in 35ft seas and winds of 40mph.

On Saturday the Kulluk’s crew were helicoptered off the rig by the US Coast Guard and the vessel dropped its anchor lines to slow its drift towards the coast. During Sunday the towing lines were reconnected but broke yet again.

Eventually on Monday morning the Aiviq also restored connection with the Kulluk about 19 miles off the coast of Kodiak Island and began the process of towing it to Port Hobron in Alaska. However, later on Monday night, the Kulluk broke its towing lines again just 4 miles off the coast and soon after it ran aground.

The Kulluk has 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of hydraulic oil on board but as yet no spills have been observed. Even so, one official involved in the response sounded a word of warning, saying that “we don’t know about the damage. It’s too dark. The weather is horrendous.”

Shell and the US Coast Guard are currently working out their next steps but are being severely hampered by “extreme weather conditions and high seas.”

We already know about the terrible impact spills can have in Alaska. In 1989 the Exxon-Valdez tanker crashed on Bligh Reef and spilled hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, covering huge areas of sea and coastline with a coating of thick crude and killing thousands of birds, sea otters, seals and orca. Even today the region is suffering from the after effects.

Sadly, this sort of incident, this time with the Kulluk, isn’t new to Shell.

Its attempts to drill for oil in the freezing Chukchi and Beaufort Seas have been hit by accidents and mishaps every step of the way: from beached drill ships to flaming engines, and from failed safety inspections to key equipment being “crushed like a beer can”, Shell’s attempts to find oil in the Arctic have lurched from one expensive and reckless farce to another.

It claims to have a “world class” Arctic programme in place to deal with any accidents, but the running aground of the Kulluk again shows how utterly incapable Shell is of operating safely in one of the planet's most remote and extreme environments.

Were the pristine environment of the frozen north not at risk of an oil spill it would be almost comical. Instead it’s tragic.

Rather than opening up the high north to oil firms we need to keep this fragile place off-limits to reckless industrialisation. Join us now to help Save The Arctic!