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Shell’s 2012 Arctic Drilling Season Comes to a Close

Posted On November 5, 2012 by

The oil drilling ship Noble Discoverer. Credit: jkbrooks85 flickr stream

Wednesday October 31 marked the end of the drilling season in the Arctic Ocean. Shell had hoped to drill a series of exploration wells into potential oil deposits in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s coast. But things didn’t go as planned for the oil giant, and it never reached the oil it was looking for. Instead of drilling exploration wells into oil-bearing layers, Shell was able to do only preparatory work and shallow “top-hole” drilling on two Arctic wells.

The 2012 drilling season didn’t unfold the way that Shell had hoped, but we did learn a few things from the company’s efforts.

First, we learned that Shell is quick to backtrack on its environmental commitments. For example, Shell asked EPA for a waiver that would allow the company to emit more air pollution than was allowed under its original permit. Shell also backpedaled from its claim that it would be able to recover 95 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill before it reached Arctic shorelines.

Second, we learned that Shell’s operations are not immune from accidents and technical problems. In July, Shell’s drillship dragged anchor in the relatively protected waters of Unalaska Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska and nearly ran aground. And in September, portions of Shell’s oil spill containment system were damaged when equipment failed under benign conditions during a test in waters off the coast of Washington State. That failure prompted Shell to give up on drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.

Third, we learned that Shell was not as prepared as it claimed to be. Shell’s website asserts that it is “ready to deploy the most robust Arctic oil spill system known to the industry.” But it turns out that Shell’s oil spill response barge—a critical component of Shell’s spill response system—failed to meet Coast Guard requirements and had to undergo extensive renovations all summer long. The Coast Guard finally certified the barge in October, well after Shell was forced to give up on plans to drill into oil-bearing layers in 2012.

Last, we learned that mother nature always holds the trump card. Despite all of Shell’s missteps and mistakes, the Department of the Interior authorized Shell to drill into shallow layers that do not contain oil. But the day after Shell began its preliminary drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea, a huge ice floe approached the well site and forced Shell to leave the area for roughly two weeks. The Arctic is an unforgiving environment, and oil companies like Shell are not in control.

Shell is already talking about coming back to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to drill into oil-bearing layers in 2013. Given its track record in 2012, I’m skeptical that Shell is prepared for the challenge, and I have no confidence that Shell would be able to respond effectively to an oil spill in Arctic conditions.

Instead of pushing to drill in ever-more risky and remote places, we should focus on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels by incorporating more renewable energy sources into our energy mix. And as we make that transition, we should ensure that any additional conventional energy development is safe and responsible. Shell’s ongoing effort to drill in the Arctic Ocean is neither.