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Chuck Clusen’s Blog

Shell Flees from Floes

Chuck Clusen

Posted September 13, 2012 in Moving Beyond Oil, Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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After nearly two months of delays, Shell began exploratory drilling of the Chukchi Sea floor in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning. By noon on Monday, encroaching sea ice had forced the company to halt drilling, disconnect from its well and anchors, and sail to safety 30 miles south of the drill site.

Shell was able to dodge a 350 square mile ice floe and the company’s representatives are touting this incident as an example of the company possessing “the expertise to work safely in the Arctic.” However, this episode is simply a reminder that when facing the massive power of nature, sometimes the only responsible way forward is through retreat.

Although Shell is trumpeting this maneuver as a success, the stakes were relatively low—drilling had hardly commenced when Shell was forced from the drill site. What if the stakes were high? How would the company respond if a well was out of control when sea ice approached?

Shell’s Oil Spill Response Plan requires its fleet to follow the same procedure as it did on Monday when ice approaches—while facing a blown-out well, the company could be forced to abandon, for at least some period of time, any effort to contain oil gushing into the Arctic Ocean. And if ice were to force the drilling fleet  away from a containment effort late in the season, the company might not be able to resume containment efforts until the next open water season (which usually begins in July) and oil would continue to flow uncontrolled for up to eight months or more. The resulting environmental devastation could be beyond imagination.

As fall approaches, freeze up will accelerate and ice floes over the drill site will only be more likely and common, while the conditions required to safely return to the drill site will be increasingly infrequent. Despite this reality, Shell has requested that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) extend the deadline of its drilling season in the Chukchi by over two weeks. The deadline was set to allow time, if necessary, to drill a relief well to stop an uncontrolled well before winter ice forces the company to abandon the drill sites for the season. BOEM has responded that any consideration of an extension of the drilling season is premature because the company is not permitted to drill into hydrocarbon bearing zones until its containment barge is certified and on-site.

After months of delays, Shell’s containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, is undergoing sea trials and could be certified this week. However, the September 24th drilling deadline is fast approaching and considering the barge will take approximately 14 days to be towed from Washington State to the drill sites in the Arctic, it will be nearly impossible for the company to have its containment systems on-site before the Chukchi season officially ends. Extending the season well past the existing deadline is inviting far too much risk into the operation. Shell’s summer of bungling should not be rewarded with an extension of the drill season.

The Arctic Challenger will hold a containment dome that could be vital to Shell’s ability to handle a blow-out, yet this containment dome has not been tested in arctic conditions. In written evidence to the UK Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee, Shell International stated: “This subsea capping and containment system will be tested and deployed in open water prior to drilling as a condition of any potential oil spill response plan approval. We will not be working in ice so testing the system in those specific conditions will not be useful or practical.”

Shell’s assertion that they will not be working in ice is correct: they plan to abandon the drill site whenever dangerous ice encroaches, yet as the season progresses the amount and thickness of ice will increase. Shell is not planning on using its containment systems in icy conditions and therefore has not tested it to perform in these conditions. But as we’ve seen this week, even in the summer, sea ice and the hazards it brings are always a possibility in Arctic operations. Shell needs to develop a credible plan and proven technology to deal with an oil spill in sea ice conditions. Abandoning a spewing well is a nightmare scenario and operating late in the season increases the chance that this nightmare becomes reality.

BOEM must not extend Shell’s drilling season. Secretary Salazar needs to hold to his commitment to “hold [Shell’s] feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we’re doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set, and to make sure that the environment and the arctic seas are protected.”

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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