Skip to main content

First Photos of Shell's Arctic Rig Add Perspective to Drilling Debate

The general public has not seen images of Shell Oil Co.'s Arctic drilling rig, the Kulluk, on site off the coast of Alaska, and a sense of the rig's proximity to protected lands has been hard to grasp. Until now.

Oregon-based photographer Gary Braasch flew to Alaska, chartered a plane in the town of Deadhorse, far above the Arctic Circle, and flew out to the rigs. His photographs provide, for the first time, a sense of perspective of the Kulluk rig in its environment, 12 miles offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"The location has been published for years in Shell's permits," he said in a phone interview. "We just went out there and, sure enough, there it was. But having the landscape just behind it was so amazing, and I don't think the public has realized how close it is."

The photos show the circular rig alone in the water. In the not-to-distant background of several images is the refuge's flat coastal plain, an area thought to be oil-rich but that has remained, so far, off limits to drillers. The Canning River Delta, part of the refuge that has been protected from drilling in many Congressional battles, is visible just beyond the rig.

A second rig, the Noble Discoverer, is in the Chukchi Sea, 70 miles off Alaska's northwest coast north of the Bering Straight, too far to be seen from land.

Shell has spent six years and $4.5 billion pioneering America's offshore Arctic oil production. The rigs arrived this summer, beset by construction delays, permit problems and stubborn sea ice.

With the short drilling season quickly closing, Shell announced in September that it would not drill for oil off Alaska this year. But the company did not pull its rigs, which were to remain over their federal lease sites until October 31 doing preliminary work.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Shell doesn't have the final permit to drill for oil in part because it has yet to convince federal authorities it can clean up a spill in the frigid Arctic waters. Almost a dozen environmental and Native Alaskan groups are suing the government for more stringent permit requirements, citing the rigs' air pollution impacts and risks associated with a spill.

Braasch has been visualizing climate change for years on his website, World View of Global Warming. The story, as told through Braasch's lens, is on the photo site, along with other images of the Arctic coast and other parts of the story of oil drilling, environmental dangers, climate change, and Alaska.

The site—and much of Braasch's environmental journalism—is supported by the marketing of his photography as well as individuals and foundations interested in climate change and conservation.

More on Arctic drilling:

Arctic Drilling: Shell Nixes Exploratory Chukchi Sea Wells Till 2013 Season

Arctic Drilling: Ice Floe Stops Shell’s Noble Discoverer From Biting Into Bottom of Chukchi Sea

Interior Department Grants Shell Permission to Do Preliminary Drilling in Chukchi Sea