* Oil rig refloated at 0710 GMT
* Weather remains a challenge, with gales forecast
* Salvage teams found no signs of breaches to fuel tanks
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan 7 (Reuters) - A recovery team has
refloated a Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground
last week near an Alaska island and began towing it on Monday
towards a more sheltered position 30 miles away.
The saucer-shaped Kulluk drillship, wrestled from the ships
towing it by near-hurricane weather and tossed onto the shore,
was refloated at 1010 PM on Sunday night (0710 GMT Monday), a
statement from the joint command center for the Kulluk
responders said. A later statement confirmed that the tow had
Weather in the area remains a challenge, with the National
Weather Service issuing a weather warning through Sunday night
forecasting rain, snow and winds of between 15 and 30 miles an
The fortunes of the Kulluk, which started drilling a well in
the Beaufort Sea late last year, face particular scrutiny
because it was a major part of Shell's controversial and
error-prone 2012 Arctic drilling program.
The U.S. Coast Guard and Royal Dutch Shell Plc hope the rig
can be towed from its grounding site on the coast of tiny
Sitkalidak Island to a sheltered bay nearby, so experts can make
a better assessment of its seaworthiness.
"Following this initial step forward, we will continue to
remain cautious while we assess the Kulluk's condition," said
Martin Padilla, incident commander for the Kulluk responders.
"We will not move forward to the next phase until we are
confident that we can safely transport the vessel."
Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska ventures manager, has said
salvage teams found no signs of breaches to any of the Kulluk's
fuel tanks and only one area where seawater leaked onboard. The
tow plan has been approved by government regulators.
Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler had said the right
combination of tides and weather, as well as the arrival of
certain equipment, was required to begin towing.
The Kulluk went aground in a storm on Dec. 31 after the ship
towing it lost power and its tow connection in the Kodiak
archipelago, far from where it began its well in September and
The rig had been headed for winter 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 have spilled, state
environmental regulators said.
The Aiviq, the vessel that lost power and its tow connection
to the Kulluk a week ago, was the ship towing the Kulluk to
Kiliuda Bay on Monday even though an investigation into the
Aiviq's failures is not yet complete.
Three other tow ships were accompanying the Aiviq for
standby, and the coast guard cutter Alex Haley was also
Alaska environmentalist Rick Steiner questioned Shell's
reliance on the Aiviq and said he believed 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 had been assigned to Chukchi Sea work
but failed to meet federal air standards, prompting 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.