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No Study Needed: Shell's Arctic Blunders Show Obama Administration Should Halt Arctic Drilling Immediately

Chuck Clusen

Posted January 8, 2013

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Special thanks to Jeff Benzak for helping draft this blog

Royal Dutch Shell’s beaten and battered drill rig is currently anchored in a remote, pristine bay on the east side of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Pretty though it may be, Kiliuda Bay was not a scheduled stop for the Kulluk: The rig was sent adrift following rough winter weather, repeated tow line failures, and other problems while en route to Seattle, where it was headed for maintenance. On New Year’s Eve, the runaway rig grounded on rocks off Sitkalidak Island, and it has since been dragged off the rocks and towed to safer harbor 30 miles away at Kiliuda Bay.

With the Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee meeting this week in Washington, D.C., Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Tuesday that DOI will conduct an expedited assessment of 2012’s Arctic operations.

That’s a  start. But it doesn’t take much examination of Shell Oil’s myriad mistakes and mishaps to realize no oil company can match the Arctic Ocean and the hazards that come with it.

Clearly, the Kulluk’s grounding is not an isolated incident – and lawmakers should not view it as such. Taken together, Shell’s failures illustrate what happens when an oil company’s hasty quest for profits encounters the harsh realities of trying to operate in Alaska’s remote waters.

The Interior Department must take more decisive action beyond just a review.

Under the authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and other applicable laws, the Interior Department must suspend all Arctic Ocean oil and gas activities.

Over the past few months, Shell alone has given the Interior Department plenty of reasons to do so. Prior to the Kulluk’s grounding at an environmentally and culturally sensitive area – which unlike Arctic drilling sites is located just a few dozen miles from one of the largest Coast Guard bases in the world – Shell produced nothing but  mistakes and mishaps with its efforts to drill for Arctic oil – making it crystal clear that it is not “Arctic Ready” by any measure. 

  • In July, one of Shell’s drill ships nearly ran aground in the Aleutian Islands.
  • In August, Shell’s spill response barge remained in Bellingham, Wash., because it was plagued with dozens of wiring and other safety problems.
  • Just a day after Shell started preliminary drilling without the spill response barge on location, its rig the Noble Discoverer was forced to turn and flee from a 30-mile long ice berg.
  • And in September, Shell’s containment dome was badly damaged, collapsing like a beer can during pre-deployment testing in the relatively placid waters of Puget Sound.

 See here for a video recounting Shell’s experience and decide for yourself if we want to wait for another mistake before we stand down on drilling in the Arctic Ocean: 

 As the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling told the president in 2011, the oil industry’s safety culture is in doubt, and the scientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive places like the Arctic is inadequate.

Shell’s problems are also proof of what so far has been poor federal oversight.

For example, Shell’s campaign to drill in the Arctic rests on a systematic misapprehension of the risks of drilling in the Arctic. Shell initially led the Obama administration to believe the company could recover 90 percent or more of the oil in the vicinity of a blowout. But eventually it conceded that it could only “encounter” that much oil in a response effort.

Indeed, in the event of a blowout in the Arctic, the short operating season would force Shell to drill a relief well in the Arctic’s icy waters faster than the industry has ever done before – even in temperate waters.

The people of Kodiak Island have more immediate concerns. One of the largest, most profitable commercial fishing ports in the United States, Kodiak still bears deep scars from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. And now folks in Kodiak are once again listening to oil company officials offer assurances that local waters will be protected.

But Kodiakans have legitimate questions. They’re worried about more than 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel sitting in the Kulluk’s tanks in the middle of a biologically productive bay that’s home to commercially important tanner crab and herring fisheries, as well as numerous salmon streams. The bay plays a vital role in the subsistence culture of the nearest village, Old Harbor; borders the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which provided habitat to the Kodiak brown bear; and generates food resources for the wider Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.

The Interior Department has provided oil companies with an unprecedented opportunity to pursue oil and gas in the Arctic.

But we now know, without a doubt, that neither Shell nor any other oil company is a match for the Arctic Ocean.

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Scott BealsJan 9 2013 05:09 PM

The environment is worth more than the oil.

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