Even at 6:30 a.m. Alaska time today, three hours before sunrise, there was a hum of activity at the unified command center coordinating the response to Shell’s breakaway drilling rig off Kodiak Island on the state’s southern coast. The command — coordinating the efforts of Shell, the Coast Guard, the state, Noble Corporation (the drilling contractor), and local officials — is responsible for figuring out how badly the 28,000-ton Kulluk is damaged, if it’s leaking any of its 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and how it can be towed back out to sea. Three days after the rig broke free of two tugboats in bad weather and ran aground, only one of those questions can be answered: It isn’t leaking fuel. Yet.

Hoping to figure out the extent of the Coast Guard’s role in recovery — how many of the 600 people working on the response are employees of the agency, or of the state of Alaska — I called the Coast Guard station in Anchorage this morning, and was quickly referred to the unified command. When I called there, I spoke with Destin Singleton over clamorous background noise. Singleton is the spokesperson for the recovery effort — and a Shell public relations staffer.

For what little progress has been made in assessing damage to the rig, the command has put together a pretty thorough communications system. The effort has a website, KullukResponse.com, a Twitter feed, and a page of photos on Flickr. Singleton, a PR professional, didn’t offer much information beyond what’s available on the website. So here’s the latest update:

A team of five salvage experts boarded the grounded drilling unit Kulluk [yesterday] to conduct a structural assessment to be used to finalize salvage plans, currently being developed by the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command.

The five-member team was lowered to the Kulluk by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter at about 10:30 [yesterday] morning. The assessment lasted about three hours. A helicopter safely hoisted the team from the drilling unit at about 1:30 p.m. The Coast Guard helicopter and crew also delivered a state-owned emergency towing system to the Kulluk, which will be used during salvage operations.

It’s clear that the Coast Guard is playing a significant role in efforts at recovery. The video at the top of the page is from one agency flyover of the rig. But Singleton wasn’t able to (or wouldn’t) say how many Coast Guard employees were involved, nor was she able to say how many of the people working on the effort were employed by Shell. (Save one, that is: herself.)

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There’s no doubt that the effort is a complex one, requiring interagency coordination and careful consideration of safety risks. One of the main reasons that activists have been concerned about the prospect of drilling in the region is unstable, unmanageable weather like that currently impeding the recovery. But it’s also clear that Shell recognizes the public relations risk of its inability to control its drilling vessel. According to Politico, several environmental organizations plan to unveil a push to freeze drilling in the region in light of Shell’s ongoing problems.

Shell’s mistakes are costing it an enormous amount of money even before a single drop of oil has been extracted in the region. And it’s costing us money, too, though exactly how much isn’t clear — and the company isn’t saying.

Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander, 17th Coast Guard District and D17 Incident Management Team commander, observes the conical drilling unit Kulluk from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter during a second overflight Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013.
U.S. Coast Guard
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander, 17th Coast Guard District and D17 Incident Management Team commander, observes the conical drilling unit Kulluk from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter during a second overflight Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013.