Efforts to pull the Shell drilling rig Kulluk from its near-shore perch on rocks and gravel moved ahead mainly in secret Saturday, though officials disclosed the state has approved a tow plan to a temporary destination in nearby safe waters and that towing could be attempted at any time.
They said that the tough, round rig is believed to be seaworthy and there was still no evidence it has caused any environmental damage.
"The vessel has been deemed sound and fit to tow, a tow plan has been developed, and the Unified Command has reviewed and approved that plan," Sean Churchfield, Alaska operations chief for Shell, said at a news briefing Saturday afternoon in Anchorage.
"Currently we are maneuvering to put a tow line onto the Kulluk, so no tow effort has been made at this stage," he said in response to a question. "I don’t have a timeline for the completion of those activities. They are subject to weather and operational considerations."
The plan is to take the Kulluk to a safe, protected refuge — Kodiak Island’s Kiliuda Bay, several miles north of Old Harbor — where it would undergo detailed inspection out of reach of the worst of the North Pacific storms. Only then would officials decide what to do next. One possibility would be to resume its voyage to a Seattle-area ship facility for refurbishing and repairs.
Churchfield and a Coast Guard representative said at the news conference that they would not make the towing plan public. Churchfield said the plan was changing too quickly to release, though he didn’t explain why that would prevent him from disclosing a current version along with updates as they were made.
"As new information comes, it evolves relatively quickly," Churchfield said. "We would prefer to keep that just a document we can manage and control as we develop the operations."
Nevertheless, Churchfield and other officials discussed elements of the plan with reporters. He said a decision has been reached to leave the 155,000 gallons of fuel and other petroleum products on board — for now. There was also no immediate plan to lighten the Kulluk by removing equipment that had survived massive waves last week. Four lifeboats have already been swept off the deck.
Churchfield and the others said that any effort to muscle the craft into deeper water was dependent on tides, weather and readiness. They would not elaborate on what kind of severe conditions would delay a tow.