The Blog Aquatic

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The Blog Aquatic

News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy

About Andrew Hartsig

Andrew Hartsig is the director of Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program. He lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska. In a bid to put off taking the bar exam after law school, he paddled a sea kayak from Bellingham, Washington to Juneau, Alaska in the summer of 2005. [Ed. note: Fortunately, he made it back safely and passed with flying colors.]

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A Break from Drilling Doesn’t Mean a Break From Protecting the Arctic

Posted On May 16, 2013 by

Spring has arrived here in Anchorage. This time of year brings a lot of welcome changes: the days are longer, it’s warmer outside, snow is melting and waves of migratory birds are making their way back to Alaska. In recent years, springtime has also signaled the start of something much less welcome: attempts to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Fortunately, that’s not going to happen this year. As I’ve written about before, Shell’s disastrous 2012 season now has the company sidelined for at least a year as it tries to recover.ConocoPhillips recently decided to postpone indefinitely its plans to conduct exploration drilling on its offshore leases in the U.S. Arctic. Last year, Norwegian oil company Statoil announced that it would not attempt to drill in the Chukchi Sea until at least 2015 and French oil major Total warned that it was too risky for energy companies to drill offshore in Arctic waters at all.

But that doesn’t mean the work is over – far from it.

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Vanishing Arctic: How Less Research Could Eliminate The Last Frontier

Posted On April 29, 2013 by

Credit: Jarred Sutton

In a recently published paper, climate scientists predicted that seasonal temperature patterns in the Arctic could shift the equivalent of 20 degrees latitude toward the equator by the end of the century. Roughly, this shift would be like the difference between the extreme northern tip of Quebec and New York City.

While such rapid changes would have significant effects on Arctic food webs, scientists don’t know exactly how these changes will play out or the extent to which they will alter Arctic ecosystems. While the recent paper focused on Arctic lands, the need for additional research and monitoring is even more acute in the offshore environment.

That’s why legislation introduced earlier this year by Senator Mark Begich of Alaska is so important. Senator Begich’s legislation proposes to establish a permanent program to support research, monitoring and observation of processes vital to the Arctic Ocean’s ecosystem. Such a program could lead to significant advances in Arctic marine science. The better we understand rapidly changing marine ecosystems, the more likely it is that we will make smart conservation and management choices in the region.

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Salazar: Shell Screwed Up

Posted On March 14, 2013 by

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

“Shell screwed up in 2012.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was bluntly accurate when speaking about Shell’s calamitous Arctic drilling program today.

The Interior Department’s new high-level, 60-day review – while not comprehensive – calls attention to serious shortcomings in Shell’s 2012 effort and recommends a more thorough, integrated approach to planning and oversight before deciding on whether to approve future Arctic drilling operations.

The review confirms what we already knew: that Shell simply was not ready to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. It also demonstrates that federal agencies need to do a better job holding the oil industry accountable and setting higher standards for safety and environmental protection.

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Spotlight on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska: A Balanced Management Plan

Posted On March 11, 2013 by

Located in northwestern Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (or the “Reserve”) encompasses vast and pristine Arctic landscapes, lakes, rivers, coastal lagoons and barrier islands. The Reserve is the single biggest unit of public land in the country; covering nearly 23 million acres, it is roughly the size of Indiana.

The Reserve is home to caribou, wolves, wolverine and grizzly bears, and provides breeding habitat for birds from every continent. Its coastal areas provide important denning habitat for polar bears, while the lagoons and near-shore waters are used by beluga whales, walruses and several species of ice-dependent seals. Additionally, native subsistence communities rely on the Reserve’s fish and wildlife species.

There is no doubt that the Reserve contains world-class wildlife resources, but  as the name implies, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska also contains oil and gas resources. However, the energy resources are not as rich as was once believed. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a new analysis and estimated the volume of undiscovered oil resources in the Reserve to be just 10 percent of what was previously thought.

Regardless of how much oil the Reserve contains, federal law requires the Department of the Interior to balance energy exploration and development with “maximum protection” of fish, wildlife and other surface values. Late last month, the Department of the Interior approved a comprehensive management plan for the Reserve that achieves this balance.

The newly approved management plan is the first of its kind to cover the entire Reserve, and  will protect the environment while also allowing oil and gas companies to access the majority of economically recoverable oil. Furthermore, it allows for future pipelines and other infrastructure in the event that oil and gas development proceeds in offshore areas.

Simultaneously, the plan provides important protections for some of the Reserve’s most sensitive habitats. It expands the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River special areas, and creates a new special area for Peard Bay on the Chukchi Sea coast. The management plan provides significant protections for key coastal areas, including polar bear habitat, walrus and spotted seal haul out areas, and coastal lagoons important to beluga whales. In all, the newly approved management plan withdraws approximately 11 million acres of the Reserve from oil and gas leasing.

Ocean Conservancy joined with many other conservation organizations to support the new management plan for the Reserve, and the Department of the Interior’s decision to approve the plan represents a major step forward. By placing meaningful restrictions on oil and gas development to protect vital onshore and coastal habitats, the new plan demonstrates that it is possible to balance responsible energy development with conservation objectives. That’s a lesson worth remembering.

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Shell Hits Pause on Arctic Drilling. Why the Interior Department Should Too

Posted On February 27, 2013 by

 

Credit: Damian Gadal flickr stream

Today, after months of speculation and countless questions regarding their Arctic drilling operations, and on International Polar Bear Day, Shell announced that it would suspend its attempts at further oil exploration in the Arctic for 2013. Given Shell’s performance over the past year, their decision to pause drilling for 2013 is one of the smartest moves they’ve made regarding Arctic operations.  Shell has clearly demonstrated that the company is not prepared to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters.  We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water

This announcement came after a long season of other mishaps and missteps, followed by continuing troubles in Alaska throughout the winter. Shell’s Kulluk drilling unit ran aground near Kodiak Island in December after Shell lost control of the vessel while attempting to tow it in stormy seas. At roughly the same time, sources in the media reported that Shell’s other Arctic drillship, the Noble Discoverer, suffered a series of significant problems with propulsion, safety and pollution prevention systems.

Two weeks ago, Shell announced that it would tow both of its beleaguered Arctic drilling units to Asia for repair. As Shell prepared to tow the Kulluk, the tugboats assigned to the task wound up crashing into each other.

Shell’s failures during 2012 season demonstrate clearly that the company is not prepared to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar initiated a high-level review of Shell’s operations and activities in 2012. We’re urging that the review be transparent, objective, and comprehensive. An honest assessment of Shell’s failures and missteps will show that Shell wasn’t ready for the challenge of operating in the Arctic. And it will also show that the federal regulators who gave Shell the green light need to hold Arctic operators to a much higher standard.

The Department of the Interior plans to release its review in early March. In the meantime, let’s not allow Shell—or any other oil and gas company—to gamble with the health of the Arctic Ocean.

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A Rocky End to 2012 for Shell’s Arctic Drillships

Posted On January 3, 2013 by


Last year ended badly for the two drill rigs used by Shell Oil for its Arctic operations. A Coast Guard inspection in late November revealed significant problems with safety and pollution prevention equipment aboard the drillship Noble Discoverer. More recently—and more dramatically—a powerful storm in the North Pacific drove Shell’s drilling unit Kulluk aground off the coast of Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, the Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s crew before the drilling unit grounded and so far, there are have been no serious injuries. The operation to salvage the Kulluk is ongoing, and we hope that all responders and salvors stay safe.

The Kulluk’s problems began on Thursday, December 27 when heavy seas snapped the towline between the Kulluk and Shell’s tug, the Aiviq. Crews managed to reestablish the towline connecting the vessels, but the Aiviq then experienced total engine failure, leaving both tug and tow adrift in rough seas and high winds. Shell sent additional vessels to the scene to assist, and the Coast Guard responded with two cutters and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters. At Shell’s request, the Coast Guard evacuated the 18-person crew of the Kulluk on December 29. Coast Guard helicopters delivered engine parts and technicians to the Aiviq that enabled repair of the tug’s engines but—despite repeated efforts over the course of several days—neither the Aiviq nor any of the other response vessels were able to tow the Kulluk to safety.

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Reserve plan offers a model for offshore areas

Posted On December 26, 2012 by

Credit: usgs.gov

On December 21, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released a responsible and balanced management plan for a vast area of federal land the North Slope of Alaska—the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (“NPR-A” or “Reserve”). Under Secretary Salazar’s plan, roughly 72% of economically recoverable oil in the Reserve will be available for leasing by oil and gas companies. At the same time, the plan offers meaningful protections for places that are especially important to wildlife. The Interior Department’s plan strikes an appropriate balance: one that both accommodates industry interests and preserves the Reserve’s ecological values—including its value in providing subsistence opportunities for local communities.

At more than 22 million acres, the Reserve is the largest unit of contiguous federal land in the United States. It is home to animals like wolves, caribou, grizzly bears, and wolverines; it provides vital habitat for millions of migratory birds; and its coastal areas are used by marine mammals like polar bears, beluga whales, and walruses. In short, the Reserve is an incredibly rich and wild place.

Of course, the Reserve also contains oil, although not as much as previously thought. Back in 2002, a government assessment estimated that the NPRA contained over 10 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil, but exploratory wells in the region subsequently showed that the 2002 assessment greatly overestimated oil resources. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey released an updated assessment, which concluded that there was probably less than 1 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil in the Reserve—less than one-tenth the previous estimate.

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