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Why the Obama Administration Should Cancel the Shell Exploration Work this Summer

Chuck Clusen

Posted May 26, 2010

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BP’s exploratory drilling plan for the Gulf of Mexico and Shell’s exploratory drilling plan for the Arctic this summer are disturbingly similar.  As BP’s exploration plan in the Gulf stated, Shell Oil’s Chukchi Sea plan also states, “…a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.”  And as in the Gulf, MMS’s oversight has been totally lax in the Arctic. 

Exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas poses additional risks.  Hazards present in the Arctic can include frigid temperatures, presence of sea ice, gale-force winds, intense storms and heavy fog.  To date no technology exists to clean up oil in sea ice conditions.  Further, the cold water breaks down oil much slower than the warm Gulf waters.

The potential for loss in the Arctic is great.  The waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are home to one-fifth of the world’s polar bears, as well as seals, migratory birds from all continents except Europe, endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, walrus and other marine life.  Still the marine and coastal ecosystems of the Arctic are the least understood in the world.  Alaska Natives in the Arctic depend on the marine life of the ocean for survival and their ancient subsistence culture.  A major spill could be devastating to the marine life of these ecosystems and in turn to the Alaska Native peoples of the Arctic.

Shell Fails to Possess the Capacity to Clean Up a Spill in the Arctic

The oil industry is having extreme difficulty cleaning up spilled oil in the temperate conditions of the Gulf of Mexico.  As the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has noted, “containment and recovery at sea rarely results in the removal of more than a relatively small proportion of a large oil spill, at best only 10 – 15% and often considerably less.”  The U.S. Arctic Research Commission recently stated these kinds of concerns for the Arctic:

The Arctic is a venue with particular need for oil spill prevention and response.  Unique risks in the North include protracted darkness, cold, ice cover, and powerful storms, all of which complicate prevention and response efforts for spills in ice-covered waters.  Good scientific baseline information is lacking for living resources in the much of the region and the need exists to better understand both basic biological features, as well as the spatial habitat of flora and fauna that might be at risk for spills.

Shell does not address these limitations.  Shell has never conducted an offshore oil spill response drill in the Chukchi Sea to test its equipment and procedures.  Ice can clog skimmers, make vessel operations more challenging and can make it difficult to deploy equipment.  Oil speeds under ice making it more difficult to track and clean up.  Field exercises in the Beaufort Sea during 2000 showed that sea ice could shut down on-water recovery at very low concentrations.  Those exercises used some of the same equipment Shell lists in its plan.

Shallow is Not Safer

Shell Oil says a blowout of the kind that occurred at the Deepwater Horizon rig would be highly unlikely in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of Alaska because the Arctic drilling operations would be in shallower water—150 feet, instead of the 5,000 feet—and at far lower well pressure.  Shell’s drilling in shallower water in the Arctic than BP did in the Gulf does not make a blowout less likely.  Further, the response capacity of Shell in the Arctic is known to be essentially non-existent.  It only proved to be inadequate in the Gulf after the blowout.  We feel that drilling in the Arctic is more risky than drilling in the Gulf.

The MMS issued a report that shows that blowouts are not uncommon.  39 blowouts occurred between 1992 and 2006 while drilling 5,671 wells in the OCS.  Half of these blowouts—19 of 39—occurred in the most shallow water category (water less than 200 feet deep).  Shell does not acknowledge this data showing that the risk of a blowout is actually greater in shallow water, like the selected drill sites in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas than in deep water, where BP was drilling in the Gulf.  If the Blowout Preventer (BOP) fails during the Shell drilling in the Arctic the well pressure is academic.

BOPs are to be selected for the individual characteristics of each well.  If they are designed, installed, tested and operated properly, the difference in pressure between wells should not be a significant factor.  If the BOP is appropriate for each well where it is used, it should not make one well or another more or less dangerous due to different oil pressures.  Shell indicates that it would use a BOP but it has not provided an adequate description of how the device would be used.  Shell has also indicated that it would have a second BOP on hand but provides no information to evaluate the risks or efficacy of this proposal.

Inability to Respond to a Spill in the Arctic

The Gulf of Mexico is the nation’s most developed offshore drilling region.   The spill response has been overwhelming in its size and scope including tens of thousands of people, hundreds of ships, millions of feet of booms and so-far over 700,000 barrels of dispersants.  Despite all these resources, the spill continues unabated.

In the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Arctic there is no road system, essentially no port facilities, and few airports.  In the Chukchi the nearest airports are Barrow which is a hundred miles away and Point Hope which is 150 miles away from the drilling sites.  Barrow is 2,000 miles from Seattle, 2,900 miles from Los Angeles, 3,400 miles from New Jersey and 3,600 miles from Houston—the location of caches of clean-up  equipment.  The nearest Coast Guard Station is located in Kodiak Alaska 1,000 miles away.

 A major oil spill response contractor in Prudhoe Bay who would be employed does not have offshore oil clean up equipment.  In Shell’s spill plan the equipment that is identified would be wholly inadequate to deal with the Gulf type spill.  Shell does not have the right kind of boats to tow heavy, offshore booms.  In its spill plan Shell states that the same vessels would be simultaneously called on to boom both in near-shore and offshore areas.  Shell lists only 6,000 feet of boom although the spill plan lists hundreds of miles of vulnerable coastline.

Shell Lacks an Adequate Plan to Drill a Relief Well

All who are following the Gulf disaster know that the most likely solution to shutting down the leaking well is the drilling of a relief well.  Shell contends that the Frontier Discoverer, the drill ship for the exploratory wells, would drill a relief well in the event of a blowout.  As the Gulf Deepwater Horizon and West Atlas spill last year west of Australia in the Timor Sea demonstrate that a blowout can lead to the destruction of the drilling ship or rig.  Shell now also says that another drill ship, the Kulluk, would be employed if needed but it has not released any details such as whether the Kulluk is even operational or how long it would take to get it in place.

Shell’s Proposed Underwater Use of Dispersants in the Event of a Spill is Untested

Use of dispersants by BP in the Gulf has become very controversial.  It would be at least or more controversial in the Arctic’s pristine environment.  Shell states that it would expand the use of dispersants in the Arctic this summer by applying dispersant under water at the sources of any oil that might occur.  However, they have not provided adequate analysis of the effectiveness of such a response or explained how an experimental and emergency procedure that has now been used in the Gulf would be appropriate for Arctic conditions. Even surface use is not supported by the brief justification submitted. MMS has acknowledged that there are regional concerns with dispersants that may make them ineffective on spills of Alaskan crude oil in cold water/broken ice. These concerns include the lack of natural mixing due to the tendency for oils to become viscous at low temperatures.

Shell Proposes to Fabricate and Use a Containment Dome, but Provides No Information about Why that Dome Would be More Successful than the One that Failed in the Gulf

Shell offers no explanation for why a coffer dam would be any more successful than it was in the Gulf.  Although much shallower, the wells in the Arctic are sufficiently cold to produce the methane hydrate crystals that formed in the Gulf and clogged the hole at the top through which oil was suppose to be removed by a pipe to the sea surface.

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Ginny MessierMay 27 2010 01:44 AM

President Obama, Please do not let Shell go ahead with plans to drill in the Artic. That is one of the few pristine places left of earth. I would like to see no more off-shore drilling anywhere. Please get your people going on plans for Clean Energy Alternatives. I fear our earth and us will soon be drowning in all the oil that will surely come from more and more accidents. Please, Please stop off-shore drilling. I am begging you.

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