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Startseite > Wracks > Detail
Ship Name Oil Rig
owner 0
ship Safari boat
yard 0
wreck photo wreck sketch World Map
length 0 m
width 0 m
tonnage 0 BRT
launch Thu.01.1970
country 0
Sunken Thu.01.1970
depth 0 m
Longitude / Latitude
In 2005, Royal Dutch Shell, then the fourth-largest company on Earth, bought a drill rig that was both tall, rising almost 250 feet above the waterline, and unusually round. The hull of the Kulluk, as the rig was called, was made of 1.5-inch-thick steel and rounded to better prevent its being crushed. A 12-point anchor system could keep it locked in place above an oil well for a full day in 18-foot seas or in moving sea ice that was four feet thick. Its drill bit, dropped from a 160-foot derrick, could plunge 600 feet into the sea, then bore another 20,000 feet into the seabed, where it could verify the existence of oil deposits that were otherwise a geologist’s best guess. It had a sauna. It could go (in theory) where few other rigs could go, helping Shell find oil that (in theory) few other oil companies could find.

The purchase was important not because Shell needed oil in 2005. The company had plenty of oil. It was important because Shell had spent the previous year engulfed in a scandal involving what are known as proved reserves: a petroleum company’s most sacred promise about the future. Proved reserves are measured in barrels of oil, but the oil in question is still in the ground. Its total volume is unknowable, or rather it is constantly changing, because the amount a given deposit could produce depends as much on human factors as it does on geology. The same deposit will yield more or less if production methods improve (as was the case with hydraulic fracturing), if prices go up or down (some tar-sand deposits simply aren’t worth pursuing when oil is cheap), if the regulatory environment changes (like the United States moratorium, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, on some offshore drilling) or if the actual environment changes (melt in the high Arctic may put difficult deposits within reach).

Despite their unreality, proved reserves define the total worldview of an oil company. They influence things like stock price and credit rating, and in a series of announcements, Shell admitted that it had overstated its proved reserves by 4.47 billion barrels of oil, or 22 percent. The company’s stock dropped nearly 10 percent overnight. Its chairman was forced out. The Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States and the Financial Services Authority in Britain fined it a total of $150 million.

For all its short-term growth, Shell still had to show investors that its long-term future was as bright as it once looked on paper. But the planet’s easy oil — along with its shallow backyard wells and most pliant monarchs — was gone. In the era before the OPEC embargo in 1973, the so-called “supermajors,” including Shell and the predecessors of BP, Chevron and Exxon, controlled more than 80 percent of global reserves. By 2005, more than 80 percent of remaining reserves were controlled by state-owned oil companies: Aramco in Saudi Arabia, Petrobras in Brazil, Petronas in Malaysia, Gazprom in Russia, Cnooc in China and many others. As a result, the hunt for oil went to technical and geographical extremes like shale oil in South Texas, tar sands in Alberta, deepwater sites in Brazil and offshore wells in the Arctic. And the hunt became more expensive: The break-even point for many unconventional projects was $70 or more per barrel. They made economic sense only if oil prices were high, which meant their reserves could be considered proved and added to company balance sheets only if oil prices were high — and, for the moment, oil prices were high.

In Inuvialuktun, the language spoken in the settlement of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories in Canada, the name Kulluk means “thunder.” (A local schoolgirl won a naming contest in 1982.) The rig had been purpose-built for exploring what was now recognized as the last great energy opportunity. The United States Geological Survey said in a series of reports that the Arctic held nearly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered petroleum. Beneath just the American portion of the Arctic Ocean, in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, were an estimated 27 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — more than 30 times America’s annual imports from OPEC. The break-even point was substantial, but so was the prize. One federal estimate declared that at $80 a barrel, 12 billion barrels would be pulled out of the Chukchi Sea alone.

In 2005, along with its purchase of the Kulluk, Shell bid $44 million for 84 blocks of seabed in the Beaufort Sea. In 2006 it hired a subcontractor, Frontier Drilling, now part of the Noble Corporation, to staff and operate the Kulluk. In 2007, it bid another $39 million to double its Beaufort holdings. In 2008, it paid a record-breaking $2.1 billion on leases in the Chukchi. Over time, it spent $292 million to upgrade the Kulluk. (The original purchase price for the rig was never disclosed.) From its North American headquarters in Houston, where executives oversaw logistics in the distant Arctic, Shell fought off lawsuits from environmental and native groups. It waited out the moratorium on offshore drilling imposed as a result of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Arctic was a long-term investment — Shell would not start production on such a big project in such a distant place until at least a decade after it found oil — but the future is always getting closer, and by 2010 the company was anxious. It took out ads in newspapers, hoping to pressure the Obama administration into opening the Arctic. One pictured a little girl reading in bed, a figurine of a polar bear next to the lamp on her nightstand. “What sort of world will this little girl grow up in?” it asked. If “we’re going to keep the lights on for her, we will need to look at every possible energy source. . . . Let’s go.”

Even with permission, getting to the oil would not be easy. The Alaskan Arctic has no deepwater port. The closest is in the Aleutian Islands at Dutch Harbor, a thousand miles to the south through the Bering Strait. In the Inupiat whaling villages dotting the Chukchi coast, only a handful of airstrips are long enough for anything other than a prop plane. There are few roads; human residents get around in summer by boat, foot or all-terrain vehicle. Shell was trying the logistical equivalent of a mission to the moon. During the short Arctic summer, when the sea ice made its annual retreat, Shell would have to bring not only the Kulluk but everything else: personnel, tankers, icebreakers, worker housing, supply vessels, helicopters, tugboats, spill-cleanup barges and a secondary rig to drill a relief well in case of a blowout. In the wake of Deepwater Horizon, Shell would build a $400 million Arctic-ready containment dome, an extra layer of spill protection that it would also need to drag north.

By 2012, Shell had become the largest company in the world. It had $467.2 billion in revenue and 87,000 employees in more than 70 countries. It was on track to spend $6 billion preparing for Arctic Alaska, and that March the Obama administration approved exploratory drilling. The task that remained was not to tame the frontier so much as to bring it within reach, to bind Arctic Alaska to the rest of the world. Shell imagined a future of new ports, new airports and permanent rigs. Squint your eyes and you could see all the lines being drawn. Shell’s Arctic program looked much like the Kulluk itself: something massive at the end of a long thin line.  
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