Royal Dutch Shell's foray into Arctic offshore drilling has suffered a serious setback after one of its two Alaskan drilling rigs ran aground off a small island while trying to escape a fierce storm. The Kulluk drilling ship grounded last night on rocks off the southeast side of Sitkalidak, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska. The Kulluk was being towed by a 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of a North Pacific storm that included winds near 70mph and ocean swells to 35 feet.
About 4:15pm, the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 10 to 15 miles offshore and grounding was inevitable, a Coast Guard commander told reporters. "Once the Aiviq lost its tow, we knew the Alert could not manage the Kulluk on its own as far as towing, and that's when we started planning for the grounding." The command center instructed the nine tug crew members to guide the drill ship to a place where it would cause the least environmental damage. The Coast Guard planned to fly out early today to plan a salvage operation and possible spill response. The drill ship is carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. (Read more Royal Dutch Shell stories.)