Runaway Alaska oil rig dragged two tugs for miles

LONDON/ANCHORAGE, Alaska,  (Reuters) – The runaway oil rig that ran aground in Alaska on New Year’s Eve dragged two vessels trying to control it more than 10 miles ( 16 kilometer s) to ward shore in just over an hour before the crews cut it loose to save themselves in “near hurricane” conditions.

Details were still emerging yesterday from the U.S. Coast Guard and Royal Dutch/Shell, the company at the center of a controversial and accident-prone Arctic oil drilling program of which the Kulluk drillship is a vital part.

They paint a frightening picture of the 28,000-tonne, saucer-shaped rig being thrust toward the shore on waves up to 35 feet (11 meters) high driven by winds up to 62 mph (100 kph), pulling its towing vessel, the Aiviq, and a tug, the Alert, behind it.

“We are talking about near hurricane-strength conditions,” said Darci Sinclair of the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command, set up by the U.S. Coast Guard and the companies involved. “Regaining control became extremely challenging.”

The unified command said the Kulluk was still aground on Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, but “upright and stable”. Updates were available at www.kullukresponse.com.

The 30-year-old Kulluk is operated by Noble Corp and was refitted by Shell for its summer 2012 drilling expedition in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska.

Shell spent $4.5 billion preparing for extraction activities there and in the Chukchi Sea further east, but has yet to complete a single well, while facing some embarrassing setbacks.

Headlines that raise questions about the wisdom of drilling so far north in such a environmentally delicate and technically challenging place were not expected so early in 2013, given that activity stopped for the season two months ago.

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