The Conical Drilling Unit Kulluk - End of an Era
Jim Guthrie, Special to PermaFrost Media
Today the Molikpaq is a production platform off the Sakhalin Islands in Russia, the Terry Fox is owned by the Canadian Coast Guard, the Kalvik is now owned by Murmansk Shipping and works out of Murmansk, Russia, the Ikaluk and Miscaroo are owned by Smit Femco out of Russia and these vessels are also working at Sakhalin, the rest of the fleet has been either cut up for scrap or renamed and working elsewhere in the world. The last remaining vessel here in the
Beaufort Sea was the Kulluk and it is now on its way west and out of Canadian waters.
I first heard about the conical drilling unit (CDU) in 1981, when I became part of a team from Gulf Canada Resources Limited working on the planning and budgeting for what came to be called the Beaufort Sea Drilling System. At that time the vessel had no other name than the CDU, the Kulluk name was the result of a contest held in 1982 at the schools of the North to name Gulf’s fleet of vessels. Loretta Trimble, a young schoolgirl from
Inuvik, came up with the very appropriate Inuvialuktun word of Kulluk for the vessel, which means Thunder. I remember the crew that rode the tow over from Japan to our Arctic waters remarking to me that when they were in some rough weather, the Kulluk hull boomed just like thunder!
The vessel arrived in here in August of 1983, and commenced drilling a well called Pitsiulak on August 22. In that very first year it drilled much later than any floating vessel had ever drilled in Arctic waters, we did not pick up the anchors and head for the protection of
until December 11th. The next year the Kulluk completed drilling and testing a substantial oil discovery at the Pitsiulak location, just one of the many successful wells drilled by Gulf in the decade of the 80s. From 1983 – 1993 the Kulluk drilled 8 wells in the Canadian Arctic and 4 in the American Arctic. Herschel Basin
The Kulluk is a very unique drilling vessel, designed specifically for working in the shallow waters and land fast ice area of the
Beaufort Sea. It can drill in 500 feet of water and is held on location by twelve 15 to 20 ton anchors on 3 ½” anchor wire. Due to its conical shape the Kulluk can withstand the ice forces equally well from whatever direction it comes at the rig, in addition Gulf had the four Class 4 icebreakers that could break up the larger pieces of ice into sizes the Kulluk could easily manage. Occasionally, when large ice islands were detected by airborne and satellite imagery, the Kulluk would disconnect from the wellhead, the vessels would pick up the anchors and the rig would be towed safely out of the way until the ice went by. This did not happen very often and the longer we worked, the better we got at managing the ice. To this day there is no other drilling vessel in the world with the same capabilities as the Kulluk for the water depths and conditions it was designed to work in.
Low world oil prices stopped the exploration for oil & gas offshore in the
Beaufort Sea in the summer of 1993. From 1993 to 2006 the Kulluk was moored cold at , approximately 100 kms east of Tuktoyaktuk. In 2006 Shell Exploration and Production Company bought the Kulluk and the rig was refurbished in McKinley Bay from 2006 – 2008. Due to the cancellation of some planned drilling in the US Beaufort Sea the Kulluk was again moored cold in McKinley Bay for all of 2009 and the first half of 2010. Shell has now made the decision to move the Kulluk to McKinley Bay Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands; it will become part of future drilling operations in the . Chukchi Sea
On July 16 workers went back aboard the Kulluk to get it ready for the 25-day tow to
, this work was planned to be complete and the vessel ready for tow by mid-August. A Swedish Icebreaker, the Tor Viking, is the tow vessel, the Ocean Titan, an American tug, is also there to assist. On August 15th the tow commenced out of the Dutch Harbor McKinley Bay and down the channel into deeper water, that same afternoon the last 30 workers departed the Kulluk for Inuvik by helicopter. The tow out from the mooring basin and channel is very carefully planned due to the fact that the basin and channel are 10 meters in depth and the Kulluk light ship is 9.6 meters draft. By careful planning and offloading several thousands of tons of material from the vessel, the draft got down to 9.2 meters. The channel is also quite narrow and so the Tor Viking towed while the Ocean Titan tug steered from behind the rig, ensuring they stayed clear of the channel bank. Once clear of the channel and out into deeper water, the Tor Viking, with Kulluk in tow, then headed west. The 3 vessels crossed into Alaskan waters August 17th, almost 27 years to the day after it first arrived.
This is a sad day for many of us that have worked up here and been involved with onshore and offshore drilling over the past 40 years, this vessel represented a tremendous amount of employment, training, work experience and business opportunity for local people and businesses over a very long period of time, and right now there is not much on the horizon that can take its place. I have attended countless community meetings, social gatherings and other public venues over the years and a common theme from my ex-colleagues and friends from the north was the great pride so many of them still have from the good life and work experience they had working for BeauDril, Canmar, Gulf, Dome, Esso, Shell, Sun, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Devon.
With the departure of the Kulluk, the only remaining offshore drilling vessel still in the north is the SDC, which is presently unmanned and set down on the seabed at
. The Kulluk and the SDC, after 3 decades, are still two of the best pieces of offshore drilling equipment available to drill in our Arctic waters. Herschel Basin
If I am allowed a prediction it would be that the Kulluk will be back. Oil discoveries like Pitsiulak, Amauligak, Tarsuit, Paktoa, Adlartok, Kopanoar, Atkinson, Issungnak & Nipterk are just out there waiting for development to take place. A billion barrels of proven oil reserves are capped out there, and are now an important part of the asset base of Esso, ConocoPhillips, Chevron,
Devon and BP! It is just a matter of time, and I think it will come sooner than most people predict.
Friends, I was 66 in July and I had hoped to help lead the charge of a 2nd round of exploration drilling leading to production out of our
Beaufort Sea waters in this decade. Once again I would like to see the dignity and pride that young people have when they can participate fully in the good jobs created by drilling, marine, aviation, and land support operations that come with oil and gas exploration and development. Well, neither the dream of production or me has expired, so stay tuned! Don’t count us out!
Arctic Logistics Consultant