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Weather disrupts Shell efforts to free Alaska oil rig

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles (64 kms) southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska in this U.S. Coast Guard handout photo tak
The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles (64 kms) southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska in this U.S. Coast Guard handout photo tak

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard and Shell were making fresh preparations on Sunday to tow a grounded Alaska oil rig, saying crews would keep trying to connect a tow line after rough weather prevented their efforts all Saturday.

According to a news release from the unified grounding response team, the aim, once the conditions are right, is to tow the rig to a sheltered bay nearby so experts can make a better assessment of its sea worthiness.

Officials have declined to speculate on the exact timing of the removal of the Kulluk from the rocky coast of tiny Sitkalidak Island, though a senior Shell executive said last week he believed it was a matter of days.

The fortunes of the grounded drillship, which started a well in the Beaufort Sea late last year, face particular scrutiny because it was a key part of Royal Dutch Shell's controversial and error-prone 2012 Arctic drilling program.

Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska ventures manager, said salvage teams have found no signs of breaches to any of the Kulluk's fuel tanks and only one area where seawater leaked onboard. A tow plan has been approved by government regulators.

"According to naval architects, the vessel is sound and fit to tow," Churchfield said at a news conference late on Saturday.

All that is left, said Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler, is to await the right combination of tides and weather, as well as equipment that still needs to be delivered.

"We want to get this off as soon as we can. And we're looking at the best tides, the best opportunities," Mehler said. "As I stand here today, we don't have it all."

The Kulluk went aground in a Gulf of Alaska storm on December 31 after the ship towing it lost power and its tow connection in the Kodiak archipelago - far from where it began a well in September and October. The rig was headed for maintenance near Seattle.

The removal plan is to pull the Kulluk about 30 miles to Kiliuda Bay, a site previously designated as a refuge for disabled vessels. Whether it continues on for its maintenance work will be determined after the assessment, Churchfield said.

The rig has about 155,000 gallons of diesel fuel and other petroleum products aboard, none of which has spilled, state environmental regulators said.

The Aiviq, the vessel that lost power and its tow connection to the Kulluk a week ago, is the ship designated to tow it to safe refuge. An investigation into its failures is not yet complete, Churchfield said.

Alaska environmentalist Rick Steiner questioned Shell's reliance on the Aiviq, and believed all the problems with the Kulluk and its other contracted drillship, the Noble Corp-owned Discoverer, would preclude any drilling this year. "The 2013 season is on the rocks in Kodiak with the Kulluk," he said.

Shell officials in Alaska have so far declined to comment on the upcoming Arctic drilling season.

Prior to the Kulluk accident, Shell's main problem in Alaska was the Discoverer, which was assigned to Chukchi Sea work.

The Discoverer failed to meet federal air standards, which prompted Shell in June to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for a permit with looser limits for air pollution. In September, the ship dragged its anchor in the Aleutian port of Dutch Harbor and nearly grounded on the beach there.

After completing a truncated 2012 drill season in the Chukchi, the Discoverer was temporarily detained by the Coast Guard in the port of Seward, Alaska. The Coast Guard cited numerous safety and environmental-systems deficiencies, which Shell and Noble vowed to fix before the summer season began.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Braden Reddall and Tim Dobbyn)

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