ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A day after Royal Dutch Shell PLC towed a damaged floating drill rig to shelter from a remote Alaska island, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the department will perform an "expedited, high-level assessment" of the 2012 Arctic offshore drilling season.
Salazar said the review will pay special attention to challenges that Shell encountered with the drill barge Kulluk, which ran aground New Year's Eve, the drill ship Noble Discoverer, which last month was found with safety deficiencies, and Shell's oil spill response vessel barge, which could not obtain certification in time for year's drilling season.
The administration is committed to exploring potential energy resources in frontier areas such as the Arctic, Salazar said in his announcement.
"But we also recognize that the unique challenges posed by the Arctic environment demand an even higher level of scrutiny," he said.
Salazar announced the 60-day review shortly after the Coast Guard commander overseeing the Alaska district said he had ordered a formal marine casualty investigation of the Kulluk.
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo said the investigation will look at every aspect of the incident, from possible failure of materials to evidence of misconduct, inattention or negligence.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, also announced he would conduct a hearing on the grounding.
Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the company welcomes the Interior Department review and that it would help strengthen the Alaska program. Shell has already been in dialogue with the department, Smith said.
"While we completed our drilling operations off the North Slope safely, and in accordance with robust regulatory standards, we nevertheless experienced challenges in supporting the program, especially in moving our rigs to and from the theater of operations," he said.
The Kulluk, a circular barge 266 feet in diameter with a 160-foot derrick rising from its center, drilled last year in the Beaufort Sea. It was being towed to Seattle on Dec. 27 when it lost its tow line to the Aiviq, a 360-foot anchor handler. The Aiviq a few hours later lost power to all of its engines.
Lines to the drill vessel were reattached four times but broke and the barge ran aground New Year's Eve on tiny Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak Island. The Aiviq on Sunday night pulled the drill rig to deeper water and towed it Monday to a sheltered bay on Kodiak Island.