Exclusive: PM explores Shell’s Kulluk oil rig during Arctic operations

In October 2012, Shell’s Kulluk oil rig was at work off the north coast of Alaska. The US, Russia and other Arctic nations may have vast offshore oil and gas reserves.
Photograph by Edward Keating
Date:27 March 2013 Tags:, , ,

The world needs energy, and America’s Arctic waters may hold 25 billion barrels of oil. But the recent grounding of Shell’s Kulluk oil rig has sharpened a debate over the safety of offshore drilling. Popular Mechanics visited the Kulluk during its Arctic operations for this exclusive report. By Jerry Beilinson

Two days after Christmas last year, a pair of vessels laboured through heavy seas in the Gulf of Alaska. In the lead was the Aiviq, a R1,8 billion tow ship with four 4 000-kW engines. A thick line connected that ship to the Kulluk, a floating oil rig that wallowed behind. Owned by Royal Dutch Shell, the rig measured 81 metres across and was shaped like a squat, nearly round funnel. After spending part of the fall in the Arctic Ocean, it was being towed to the Seattle area for upgrades when a winter storm hit. A buckle on the towline broke, severing the connection between the two vessels. Then, as the Aiviq worked to restore the line, its engines failed, leaving both vessels adrift in 50-km/h winds and 8-metre seas.

The Aiviq got its engines working again, but crews from a nearby Coast Guard base and private tug companies struggled for days to regain control of the rig, which was drifting rapidly toward the islands of the Kodiak archipelago. The storm worsened and the deck pitched violently as Coast Guard helicopters hoisted the 18 men on board to safety. The Kulluk was headed for the rocks. On New Year’s Day 2013, the world awoke to images of Shell’s prize oil rig being pounded against the shore by 12-metre waves.

I had been on the Kulluk two months earlier. It was late October, and the rig was anchored in the Beaufort Sea, off the north coast of Alaska. Crews from Shell and its contractors had been preparing an exploratory well, and now they were racing to finish their work before pack ice encroached. The company planned to return in the summer of 2013 to complete several wells and, perhaps, ignite an offshore oil boom in the Arctic. I had seen the Kulluk before; now I became the only reporter to visit the rig on-site.

Read more in PM’s April 2013 issue – on sale 25 March.