(EnergyAsia, January 8 2012, Tuesday) — Environmental groups are demanding that governments impose an immediate ban on all oil and gas exploration activities in the Arctic region in the wake of the grounding of a Shell rig in the remote ecologically-sensitive northern part of the planet.

The Kulluk was refloated yesterday and towed away after it became grounded off the stormy seas of Sitkalidak Island on December 31 when its towing lines broke in strong wind conditions.

Citing media reports, Greenpeace suggested that Shell was rushing the rig out of Alaska to avoid a US$6 million local property tax due on January 1.

While no oil was spilled in the Gulf of Alaska incident, Greenpeace said Shell’s reputation now lies in tatters, predicting the European major will struggle to complete its 2013 drilling programme in the Arctic.

Shell officials have revealed that the 28,000-tonne Kulluk, which carried 143,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of hydraulic oil, has suffered serious damage through seawater seepage that has shut down both its regular and emergency back-up power generators.

The 20-year-old rig ran aground near the Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge where any spill would have terrible impacts on local wildlife. The area is home to at least two endangered species as well as seals, salmon and a variety of shellfish.

Greenpeace Arctic campaigner Ben Ayliffe said:

“The time has come for the US government to act. It is now patently clear that it is impossible to drill for oil safely in the Arctic. President Obama must step in and rewrite his policy on the frozen north to stop one of these near misses becoming a major environmental disaster in one of the planet’s most delicate ecosystems.

“The Kulluk incident has raised many glaring safety issues and serious questions must be asked of Shell’s decision-making. Investors will be watching this latest mishap and asking how much longer Shell can persevere with a multi-billion dollar Arctic drilling programme that has been characterised by one glaring operational blunder after another.”

Greenpeace US deputy campaigns director, Dan Howells, said:

“Shell’s US$4.5 billion Arctic gamble is looking like a serious mistake, and should act as a warning to other companies looking to drill in this incredibly hostile environment.

“The US administration should stop licensing Arctic drilling and start protecting America’s coastline from Shell’s incompetence. Oil companies cannot operate safely in the pristine Arctic, where both the risks and the impacts of any industrial accident are too great to bear.”

Greenpeace said the Kulluk incident is the latest in a series of blunders that Shell has committed in relation to its Arctic drilling programme.

According to the environmental lobby group, Shell admitted last July that it is unable to meet US government air pollution targets for its Arctic drilling fleet as it has sought an exemption.