Right as I was getting ready to launch this series, the New York Times Magazine published “The Wreck of the Kulluk,” a gripping narrative feature about the 2012 grounding of Shell’s Arctic drill ship in Alaska—a financial disaster that could also have resulted in environmental damage and loss of life. The story was an excerpt from Of Ice and Men, an e-book single published by the Deca Stories collective in mid-January. Both versions of the story were riveting, so I decided to postpone my planned second column—sorry, folks, you’ll have to wait a little longer to hear all about how polar bears and grizzlies are mating to produce “grolar bears”—and talk to writer McKenzie Funk instead. I reached him at his home in Seattle.
Funk, a former National Magazine Award finalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, Outside, Rolling Stone, and Bloomberg Businessweek, has been keeping an eye on Shell’s activity in the Alaskan Arctic for nearly a decade now; he reported on the company for his book, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, and once, a few years back, he wound up sailing within hailing distance of one of Shell’s seismic testing ships in the Chukchi Sea while traveling by icebreaker on assignment for National Geographic.
“As much as the Arctic is warming, it’s not warming enough that it’s like drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The conditions are extreme.”
Based in Seattle, Funk could actually see the massive Kulluk and its smaller sister drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, from a bridge near his home—on the day in June 2012 that they left port to begin their journey to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, off the western and northern Alaskan coasts, he jumped in the car and followed them as far as he could, taking photos. “It seemed like a moment in history,” he says, “and so I wanted to see it.”
Funk had secured a magazine assignment to embed on a Greenpeace ship that planned to confront the Shell crews in Arctic waters that summer. But, thanks to some early problems detailed by in his story, the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer were weeks behind their scheduled arrival, and the protesters wound up sailing around with nothing to protest.
“The assignment sort of fell apart,” Funk says. The delays in getting to the Arctic also meant a belated withdrawal from the Arctic, and the Kulluk wound up attempting its return voyage south from Dutch Harbor in late December. That’s when the main drama—the escape of the Kulluk from its tugboat, daring rescue attempts by Coast Guard ships and helicopters, and the eventual grounding of the rig on a small island—occurred. When he heard the news, Funk booked a flight—the last available seat he could find out of Seattle—and flew to Anchorage on a plane full of Shell contractors being called in to help with damage control. He had his story.
I asked Funk what he took away from the story of the Kulluk. Aside from being a great crisis-at-sea yarn, what can it tell us about the challenges and risks of drilling for oil in the Arctic?
First off, Funk says, the story is a reminder that the distances involved are immense. “I don’t think Americans have a good sense of how far everything is,” he says. It’s a 2,000-mile voyage just from Seattle to Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians—the last major working port a ship bound for the North American Arctic will visit—and as far again to reach the Beaufort Sea from there.
“Insofar as the ships are moving back and forth and the rigs are moving back and forth, that distance alone is just like driving really fast on the freeway—people who drive more have more chance of getting in a wreck,” Funk says. “People who are towing giant things through what are known to be very nasty stretches of ocean have a higher chance of something like this happening. So I don’t think it was inevitable, and I don’t think that it means that it can never be done—clearly, people move ships to and from Alaska and the Arctic all the time, and this doesn’t happen. But I do think it’s a factor.”
“I don’t think Americans have a good sense of how far everything is.” It’s a 2,000-mile voyage just from Seattle to Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians—the last major working port a ship bound for the North American Arctic will visit.
The second challenge highlighted by the Kulluk’s failed voyage is Alaska’s weather. “As much as the Arctic is warming, it’s not warming enough that it’s like drilling in the Gulf of Mexico,” Funk says. “The conditions are extreme.” Weather delays were part of what prevented the ships from going north in the ideal window during the peak of summer; weather slowed the unloading by helicopter of much of the Kulluk’s crew before the departure from the Beaufort; and those delays in turn exposed the ships and remaining men to extreme winter weather on their belated return.
“There were things that they hadn’t prepped for. And then that sort of ties into the third [factor], which is these big oil companies who have the technical capabilities to drill, who are very good at drilling—and Shell is—aren’t necessarily ones who are stacked with people who know the terrain up there. They had a bunch of people from the Gulf, they had a bunch of Louisianans and Texans, and they were the ones manning the helicopters and the tow ships and the rig itself. That’s who they had up there. And as you can see from the choices they made, they made bad moves based in part because they didn’t know what was going on. Everything from their choice of tow route to not having high enough exhaust vents for their engines, on the tow ship—those mattered a lot when the storms hit.”
I asked Funk what his impression was of the Alaskan response to the wreck—Alaskans aren’t, stereotypically speaking, inclined to line up against oil and gas or other resource extraction projects. (An October 2014 poll found that 73 percent of Alaskans support offshore drilling in their Arctic waters.) “There was a lot of rolling of eyes,” Funk says. “The basic takeaway was, even if they were pro-drilling and pro-Arctic drilling, they were anti-dumbasses doing bad things with boats.”
For now, at least, any lessons Shell and other oil companies learned from the grounding of the Kulluk will go on the shelf: the precipitous plunge in oil prices this winter means that further Arctic exploration won’t make financial sense any time soon.
Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.
First, you should read Funk’s story! Beyond that, Bob Reiss’ The Eskimo and the Oil Man tracks the struggle over Alaskan offshore oil through the eyes of an Inupiat politician on Alaska’s North Slope and a Shell executive in Anchorage. And on the Canadian side of the border, Arno Kopecky’s The Oil Man and the Sea chronicles a sailing voyage along a controversial, proposed oil tanker route through British Columbia’s Inside Passage.