In its quest to drill exploratory oil wells in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell made a lot of promises to government regulators about its ability to run a safe and clean drilling operation in the challenging Arctic environment. But as the drilling season approaches, Shell is already experiencing setbacks and backtracking on its commitments.
First, Shell is changing its story about its capacity to clean up spilled oil in the Arctic. Portions of Shell’s Arctic oil spill response plans are based the unrealistic assumption that Shell would be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst case spill. Actual recovery rates—even in optimum conditions—rarely exceed 20 percent. When confronted with questions about its spill plan, Shell back-pedaled, claiming that it didn’t mean that it would actually be able to clean up 90 percent of the spilled oil, only that it would be able to “encounter” 90 percent of the spilled oil.
Second, Shell is having problems obtaining Coast Guard certification for one of its oil spill response vessels. Because of the harsh conditions of the Arctic, the Coast Guard requires Shell’s vessel to withstand the conditions and forces generated by a severe storm that might happen once every 100 years. Shell’s vessel failed to meet that stringent standard. In the face of this setback, Shell suggested a shortcut: it asked the Coast Guard to use a less rigorous certification standard.
Third, Shell recently admitted that it won’t be able to meet the air emissions standards established in Clean Air Act permits granted by the EPA. Instead of addressing the issue at an earlier stage, Shell waited and hoped for the best. When tests showed that emissions from Shell’s drillship and oil spill response vessel would exceed the air pollution limits set by the permits, Shell once again tried for an easy way out, requesting that EPA grant a waiver to allow the vessels to emit more pollutants.
And then there’s the incident in Dutch Harbor… This past Saturday, Shell’s 500 foot drillship—the Noble Discoverer—dragged anchor and nearly ran aground (or did in fact run aground, depending on who you ask) near Dutch Harbor in Alaska. Photos show the Discoverer very close to the shoreline. Fortunately, tugs were able to pull the drillship back to deeper waters. If Shell was not able to control its drillship in the relatively protected waters of Unalaska Bay, how will it fare in the more challenging environment of the Chukchi Sea?