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Kulluk saga in Popular Mechanics

March 10, 2013

The March 2013 cover story in Popular Mechanics is about the Kulluk oil platform mishap that occurred two months back.

Royal Dutch Shell embarked on a $5B drilling program in the arctic offshore using two drilling barges, the largest of which called Kulluk was acquired by Shell specifically for the arctic drilling task. Kulluk was built in the early 1980’s for drilling in the Canadian arctic, but laid dormant for a decade and a half. A massive barge 266 feet across, the Kulluk was meant to withstand the toughest and thickest ice. It is an unwieldy craft to tow at sea.

The towing task fell to the $200M Aiviq, a massive ice resistant tug, equipped with 4 5,444 horse power engines. The towing task began in late December. Kulluk was being towed through the Bering Straight en route to Seattle for repairs. The article itemizes what went wrong:

The US Environmental Protection Agency said the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer drillship violated numerous conditions of air-quality permits while drilling off Alaska last year.

A 2008 report by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the area north of the Arctic Circle holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, the main ingredient in gasoline and other fuels, and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, used for heating and for producing electricity. Nearly 85 percent of those resources, the report said, lie not on land but under frigid Arctic waters.


The Kulluk mishap was a costly learning experience for Shell, but luckily no fuel was spilled and no one was injured or killed. The remarkable series of unexpected events led to Kulluk eventually being set adrift. The main culprit was the Aiviq—the tow ship proved not up to the task at hand when it was needed. Shell assumed responsibility for the mishap and will take a year respite before resuming its drilling program.