Monday, May 18, 2015

The True Story of an Arctic Catastrophe

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 50
McKenzie Funk, The Wreck of the Kulluk

On New Year’s Eve, 2012, an Alaska tugboat crew cut loose the Kulluk, a mobile offshore drilling platform intended for extracting undersea oil from Arctic waters. The platform, carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and living supplies for hundreds of men, hit Sitkalidak Island, where it was totalled, signalling an ignoble end to a $6 billion experiment. But the story began much sooner, and much more sordidly.

Journalist McKenzie Funk, a veteran freelancer for National Geographic, Outside, and BusinessWeek, reconstructs the events leading to, and stemming from, the disastrous attempt to move the Kulluk and its attendant fleet during Alaska’s storm season. The result is a concise narrative that combines high-seas adventure with an exposé of corporate short-sightedness and greed. If more journalism today looked like this, America’s newspapers would remain thriving and profitable.

Oil, as an industry, has evolved far beyond the circumstances it occupied when wildcatters struck crude in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1977. As Funk describes, rising state-owned oil companies have crowded private enterprise, stabilizing prices but undercutting profits. Corporations have scrambled to reclaim markets. Until recently, options have proven limited. But when crude prices crack $80 per barrel, risky choices suddenly become cost-effective.

The Kulluk was only part of a larger flotilla aiming for untold Arctic petroleum riches. Funk estimates one-quarter of Earth’s untapped petroleum reserves reside under Arctic sheet ice, and a mix of sustained demand, inflated prices, and global warming made offshore drilling in untested waters suddenly profitable. The Kulluk’s parent corporation, Shell, snagged valuable leases in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas at fire-sale prices, and prepped an exploratory drilling fleet.

Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk mobile drilling rig, in its final
resting place, the shoals just off Alaska's Sitkalidak Island

Royal Dutch Shell purchased the Kulluk for an undisclosed sum and spent over $300 million refitting it for Arctic drilling. Yet despite its massive size and tremendous power, and despite being intended for drilling in regions where floating ice is measure in miles, Shell inexplicably gave it no engines. For propulsion, it relied upon external tugboats attached with steel cables. A subcontractor built a hardened tugboat specifically for ice drilling.

Funk describes errors piled upon errors with such grandiose haste, it approaches tragicomedy. A British corporation, with North American headquarters in Texas, hired contractors in Long Beach, California, and New Orleans, Louisiana, to build vessels intended for Alaskan waters. It sent exploratory vessels into waters so remote, they’re accessible only three months per year, and the nearest search-and-rescue facilities are over 1,000 miles away.

Finally, after drilling season ends, Shell executives decide to return the Kulluk and its fleet to Seattle in December. Later, they’ll explain their decision by citing obscure tax law. But anybody who knows Alaska knows that the North Pacific doesn’t quietly accept human arrogance in December. Forty-foot swells batter the fleet, swamping engines designed for Gulf of Mexico conditions, while bitter headwinds push straining tugboats backward, technology be damned.

Against this journalistic backdrop, Funk juxtaposes Craig Matthews, a true Alaska original. Originally from California, Matthews hitchhiked to Homer, took work in deep-water fishing, and eventually became ship’s engineer. He survived the Exxon Valdez spill and remained steadfastly dedicated to his adopted home. Though lacking formal education, his engineering skills remain unquestioned and priceless. Despite his rugged style, Matthews eats vegan, practices Buddhist meditation, and lives a simple, self-disciplined life.

The contrast between Matthews and other singular personalities on one hand, and corporate groupthink on the other, drives Funk’s narrative beyond dry reportage. This conflict between those who know and respect Alaska, and those who would control and dominate it, gives Funk’s journalism storytelling panache often associated with Jack London or Mark Twain. Alaska’s volatile winter ocean becomes a contest of wills between the arrogant rich and the poor wise.

It’s possible to read Funk’s story so many ways. Is it an adventure story striving heroic roughnecks trying to prevent a completely man-made disaster? A parable of corporate hubris brought low, of people who consider themselves masters of the universe realizing that nature still won’t be denied? A dedicated muckracker exposing corporate bureaucrats’ refusal to accept that the “invisible hand” won’t save their asses? Oh yes, all this and more.

American journalism recently has become a competition to accrue the most possible online “hits” or bottom-line ratings. But Funk’s story proves, not only that skilled reporters can still produce hard-hitting stories, but that readers want more than headlines and breaking news. At this writing, Shell currently intends to try Arctic exploratory drilling again this summer. Writing like Funk’s challenges readers to think carefully before trusting industry to fix itself.

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