MOSCOW, Dec 18 - An oil drilling rig with 67 crew on board capsized and sank off the Russian Far East island of Sakhalin on Sunday when it ran into a storm while being towed, leaving 49 of the crew unaccounted for, the regional Emergencies Ministry said.
Fourteen crew members were rescued alive from the 'Kolskaya' jack-up rig, operated by Russian offshore exploration company Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), and four bodies were recovered. The rest of the crew were missing.
"The floating drilling rig capsized 200 kilometers (125 miles) off the coast of Sakhalin island at 12.45 local time (0145 GMT)," the Emergencies Ministry said in a statement on its website.
The statement said a rescue craft and helicopters had been sent to the site to scour the waters for survivors, but Russian news agencies said rescue work had been halted until Monday morning as night fell in the far eastern region.
The 'Neftegaz-55' tugboat that had been towing the Kolskaya rig and had taken part in the search effort, pulled out after suffering hull damage near its engine room. An icebreaker, the 'Magadan', was at the scene.
Most of the missing crew were from the Russian far eastern town of Magadan, said a spokesman for AMNGR, a unit of state-owned Zarubezhneft. The company, based in the northern port of Murmansk, flew out counsellors to offer support to relatives.
RIG WAS WORKING FOR GAZPROM
The rig had been doing work in the Sea of Okhotsk for a unit of state-controlled gas export monopoly Gazprom, the company said.
It was heading to the port city of Kholmsk on the western side of Sakhalin island from the eastern peninsula of Kamchatka when strong winds and high waves capsized the vessel.
Russia's prize offshore gas and oil fields lie to the northeast of the island.
No oil spill was likely, but the disaster will deal a blow to efforts by Russia, the world's largest energy producer, to step up offshore oil and gas exploration to offset a long-term production decline at its onshore production sites.
Russia has two major offshore projects that are already producing oil and gas off Sakhalin - Sakhalin-1, operated by Exxonmobil and Sakhalin-2, operated by Royal Dutch Shell and in which in which Gazprom has a controlling stake.
The disaster is unlikely to seriously affect oil or gas production.
Gazprom said the vessel was no longer under contract when it sank, a spokesman for the company told Interfax.
Operating conditions at the Sakhalin fields, explored by Soviet geologists in the 1960s and 1970s, are among the harshest for Russian energy companies.
The jack-up rig, which has support legs that can be extended to reach the ocean floor while its hull floats on the ocean surface, was overturned while in the stormy winter conditions. Waves in the waters were reportedly 5-6 metres high.
"The violation of safety rules during the towing of the drilling rig, as well as towing without consideration of the weather conditions, in so far as the rig was being towed in strong storm conditions, is believed to be the cause of the (disaster)," investigators said, state news agency RIA reported.
Winter often lasts 220-240 days in the waters off Sakhalin, where the main companies operating are ExxonMobil, Gazprom, and Royal Dutch Shell, who produce oil and gas, sometimes in icebound conditions, for export largely to Asian markets.
The Sakhalin-2 project run by Shell, Gazprom and Mitsui , produces 10 million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) at Russia's only LNG plant in the southeastern port of Prigorodnoye for export to Asia, much of it to Japan.
Each tanker of crude oil produced by at the 160,000 barrels-per-day Sakhalin-1 project, operated by ExxonMobil, is escorted by two icebreakers when ice thickness reaches 60 centimeters.
State-controlled Rosneft this year reached a major deal with Exxon to explore for oil and gas in the Kara Sea, to the north of the Russian mainland, a largely unexplored region estimated to hold over 100 billion barrels of oil.
A combination of poor infrastructure and chronic corner cutting has dealt the country its share of sea disasters, noteably the 2000 sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in August 2000, killing all 118 aboard and prompting criticism of the sluggish response.