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Shell's Greatest Hits (Misses) of 2012: Arctic Drilling Not Ready for Primetime

Chuck Clusen

Posted September 20, 2012

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Shell’s announcement that it will not drill into oil bearing zones this year comes as welcome news to those of us who work to protect the Arctic Ocean.

Far too little is known about the ecosystems of this region. We must commit to additional studies to better understand how this national treasure will be affected by oil and gas development before we put it at risk.  We must also create a system of Arctic marine reserves to protect the iconic species and ecological processes upon which they depend. And, most importantly, we must be confident that any potential spill can and will be prevented.

Today, British lawmakers are urging international governments to seek a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Arctic, calling the current exploration a “reckless gold rush,” and urging oil companies to “come clean and admit that dealing with an oil spill in the icy extremes of the Arctic would be exceptionally difficult.”

Shell’s experience in the Arctic this summer shines a spotlight on the urgent need for governments to hold oil companies to stricter, not looser, standards of safety and preparedness. Despite the administration’s willingness to facilitate Shell’s exploration activities, this summer has been full of delays and hiccups for Shell. Here are just a few:

Shell’s fleet cannot meet EPA air quality regulations:

In the final weeks before the drilling fleet was set to begin its journey to the Arctic, Shell admitted that its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, could not meet the air quality standards required by the law. In order for the vessel to be in compliance, the standards needed to be relaxed to allow 300% more Nitrogen Oxides to be released than originally permitted and the for the limits of ammonia release be eliminated altogether. Similarly, the spill-response vessel, Nanuq, would need to be allowed to release up to 10x more particulate matter emissions than originally permitted.

The EPA granted a “compliance order” allowing shell to operate while releasing these elevated levels of pollution.

Drillship drags anchor while in harbor:

The Dutch Harbor Telegraph reported that the vessel was “stuck on the beach” for an hour. Shell’s representatives insist that the Discoverer did not run aground but “stopped very near the coast” Whichever the case, this incident raises concerns about whether or not Shell’s retrofitted vessels are ready for the harsh and unpredictable conditions of the Arctic.

Insufficient testing of oil containment systems:

Despite assurances of “comprehensive” testing to meet “rigorous new standards”, a FOIA lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) forced the release of the single page of notes pertaining to equipment testing. “The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200 feet of water without dropping it,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass. “The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumpling.”

Drilling for one day:

Shell was allowed to begin top-hole drilling even without all of its containment equipment ready and on-site. One day after the Noble Discoverer began drilling it was forced from the well site by encroaching sea ice. After nearly two weeks, the company has not resumed drilling.

Arctic Challenger certification mess:

Perhaps the biggest headache for Shell this summer is the Arctic Challenger retrofit. The containment vessel remains in Washington State, still lacking certification from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Bureau of Shipping. During the retrofit, several spills were recorded and the Arctic Challenger was fined by the Coast Guard. The Arctic Challenger holds a containment dome vital to Shell’s containment plan, this dome was damaged during testing last Saturday night. Without this containment equipment, Shell has announced it will postpone its plans to drill into oil-bearing regions this year.


It’s not just environmental groups that have signaled that Shell should take the risks of Arctic exploration more seriously: Lloyd’s of London, a major insurance market, warns, “the risk of an oil spill…represents the greatest risk in terms of environmental damage, potential cost and insurance”; the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council has voiced its opposition to offshore drilling in the Arctic; and other major oil companies are delaying their Arctic exploration plans.

Shell has shown the world that it is not yet capable of safely operating in the Arctic. Its containment systems are simply not proven. The equipment it uses does not meet air quality standards without special exemptions. Control of the drillship was lost while in harbor, under relatively calm conditions. The moratorium called for by British lawmakers and Alaskan Natives should be taken seriously. The Obama Administration should not relax regulations to accommodate Shell’s hasty exploration. As long as Shell pursues this bungled and dangerous drilling program, we must all be concerned.


Clint Kincaid aided Chuck Clusen with this post.

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