Russian drilling rig capsizes, sinks in the Sea of Okhotsk, likely killing over 50 on board


Publish date: December 19, 2011

Written by: Anna Kireeva

MURMANSK - The Russian jack-up rig Kolskaya capsized and sank within twenty minutes during a storm on Sunday while being towed from West Kamchatka – where it may have been used for drilling in defiance of environmental authorities’ objections – to Zyryanskaya Bay on the south-eastern shore of Sakhalin Island, in the Russian Far East. The search for survivors is ongoing, but only 14 out of the 67 on board have been rescued so far. The confirmed death toll now stands at 16 people.

Altogether, 67 people were on board – and, as preliminary reports indicate, the wreck mainly claimed the lives of drilling specialists who are confirmed to have been on board along with the crew – against existing safety regulations.

While the rig owner insists on both compliance with all safety standards and high professionalism of the crew, a criminal investigation has been initiated into what is suspected to have been violations of safety norms and negligence while operating a marine vessel as a cause of the deaths of two or more persons. Under Russian law, this is potentially a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

“What will have to be done first and foremost is examining the actions and decisions made by those who organized the transport operation, everyone who was taking part in the towage of the drilling rig that ended with the wreck,” transport prosecutors in the Far East said, according to news reports.

Bellona-Murmansk’s Nina Lesikhina believes the accident should serve to highlight the prohibitive risks of all drilling-related activities in such rough storm and ice conditions as occur in Russia’s northern or far eastern regions – something the oil and gas industry must take into account so that loss of life could be prevented in the future.

“What happened in the Sea of Okhotsk is, of course, a tragedy, one whose causes will have to be established yet. But it is absolutely clear that oil and gas companies at this point are not ready to operate in ice conditions,” said Lesikhina, who coordinates energy projects for Bellona’s Murmansk branch. “The technologies that exist today are inadequate to ensure the safety of people and the environment, and the severe weather conditions both increase the risk of accidents significantly and hinder timely and efficient rescue operations.”

According to news reports, high winds and fierce waves struck the rig some 200 kilometers off Sakhalin, damaging the Kolskaya’s air tanks and causing water to start flooding the vessel. Russia’s federal water transport agency was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying, in a statement on its website, that “the Kolskaya keeled to its side … and sank within 20 minutes.”

The 67 crew members on board the rig were awaiting evacuation by helicopter when disaster struck, said the industry publication Upstream in a report on Sunday. Most of the 67 people are believed to have been Russian with 32 from Murmansk, where the owning company is based, said a related story by Upstream, citing reports that some Bulgarians may have been on board.

The accident is not believed to have caused any ecological damage since very little fuel was on board as the vessel was under tow.

The rig

The 70-by-80-meter jack-up driling rig Kolskaya was built by Finland’s Rauma Repola in 1985 and is now owned by Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), an oil and gas prospecting, exploration, and development outfit based in Murmansk, which is the vessel’s port of registration. AMNGR has a fleet of 25 various-purpose vessels, including another jack-up rig, available for work on contract to outside organizations. The Kolskaya was able to accommodate up to 102 people on board.

In 1989, Kolskaya was leased out to a Norwegian company and was operated in the North Sea until 2008.

In April, the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom’s offshore affiliate, Gazflot, contracted the rig to drill an appraisal well this summer on the West Kamchatka block, said Upstream, adding, however, that Gazflot was not the rig’s operator when it sank.

In a transcript of a press conference available on Arktikmorneftegazrazvedkas website (in Russian), the company’s general director Yury Melekhov sought to underscore both the good technical condition of the vessel and the professionalism of its crew.

“Highly professional crews were on board of both […] Kolskaya and the [two] vessels that were towing it, every crew member [had] at least ten years of experience working at sea,” Melekhov said in his statement, adding that the company also provided extensive ongoing training and towing and rescue drills. “So I am asking you not to question the professionalism of the actions of all superiors and crew members involved in this towing operation.”

He also said Kolskaya underwent another renovation in 2011 under the supervision of two classification societies – Norway’s DNV and the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping – and thus complied with the highest standards of navigation safety. So did the towing project and accompanying documentation, Melekhov said.

He also said the worsening weather conditions were expected and prepared for beforehand, and decisions were made based on visibility at the tow point. 

Information, however, has surfaced, with references to the crew members’ wives, alleging that the crew was forced to go out to sea in bad weather conditions since the next period suitable for towage in the area was only expected in February, meaning the rig would have been in downtime for several months and the company would have suffered loss of profit as a result.

Profit or human lives?

According to reports available at this point, however, most of the victims were not crew members, but drilling specialists who were not supposed to be on board during the towing operation. Speculations have arisen that the specialists were allowed to board because those responsible for arranging the voyage allegedly failed to lease an additional passenger vessel to transport the drilling crew to Sakhalin.

Informed sources cited in a report by the Russian daily Kommersant (in Russian) say the death toll shouldn’t have been so high.

“About half of all the number of people who were on board the rig didn’t have anything to do with the towing of the Kolskaya,” a source who wished to remain unnamed told Kommersant. “These were rig operators, their assistants, derrick operators, etc.”

The source also suggested the captains of the icebreaker Magadan and the towing vessel Neftegaz-55, which carried out the towing, refused to take the drilling crew on board as the vessels did not have enough rescue equipment. Those responsible for organizing the towing had for one reason or another failed to arrange for an additional passenger vessel, reports say.

Russian maritime regulations prohibit transportation on board a towed vessel of anyone but the captain and a skeleton crew needed to assist in the towing. No passengers are allowed on board a towed vessel.

Under USSR regulations, the maximum number of crewmembers allowed on board a drilling rig under tow was 35 people. Almost twice as many were working on Kolskaya. Their transportation by regular means would have incurred additional expenses.

Other reports say the drilling on the shelf of Kamchatka was completed last October, which meant that the rig could be towed away then – and shouldn’t have been towed away at a later point in time – for safety considerations arising from weather conditions.

One of the issues for investigators will be establishing whether there was an authorization to tow the rig in ice conditions in December and with passengers on board. 

The illegal drilling allegations

Russian news reports say the Kolskaya may have been used for unauthorized drilling in the first place. AMNGR and Gazflot’s contract envisioned drilling and testing a well dubbed Pervoocherednaya on the West Kamchatka block. Last August, the Kolskaya was delivered to the port of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk, and drilling started the following month. An exploratory 3,500-meter well was to be drilled within the next three and a half months.

According to Upstream, Gazprom received a license for the West Kamchatka block in 2009 and has indicated it was planning to drill two appraisal wells there this year. In total, four wells were to be drilled on four perspective structures under the terms.

But news stories report that a dispute developed between the company and Rosprirodnadzor, Russia’s environmental protection agency, which had issued a negative environmental impact assessment on the project and sought administrative penalties for Gazprom and AMNGR over the drilling that had started at the site. A lawsuit was also filed by environmental prosecutors in Kamchatka seeking a court finding of illegal activities and an injunction to stop all further drilling until a proper approval was issued by Rosprirodnadzor.

AMNGR’s press service declines to comment on the matter saying all allegations of violations on the part of the company are “unofficial information.” Gazprom, likewise, denies any involvement in the accident, though it confirmed to the Russian news agency Interfax (in Russian) that AMNGR had been performing drilling works on a contract with Gazflot on the West Kamchatka shelf – works that are by now completed.

 “As of now, [AMNGR’s] works for Gazprom are completed and the rig was headed for the base,” said Gazprom’s statement as quoted by Interfax. It remains unclear whether the well under dispute had in fact been drilled before the rig was sent on its way to Sakhalin.

Bellona-Murmansk’s Lesikhina points out that several projects are currently at the stage of planning on the Arctic shelf, including with the use of the offshore rig Prirazlomnaya at the Prirazlomnoye oil and gas field. Last August, Russian environmental organizations – Bellona among them – addressed the government with a statement urging to change the country’s policy in the Arctic and put a freeze on drilling works before all safety measures are in place. Their concern is that the installation of Gazprom’s new offshore rig Prirazlomnaya and the anticipated drilling and production and transportation of oil from the Arctic shelf threaten to turn this area into a ticking ecological bomb.

Given the extremely severe Arctic climate, an absence of infrastructure needed for first-response operations during accidents and oil leaks, and a lack of transparency in conducting the Prirazlomnoye project, Lesikhina said, the risks are there that the tragedy with the Kolskaya may be repeated.