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.]
The coast of southeast Alaska is renowned for its stunning beauty, and the pocket beach outside the town of Sitka was no exception: dark sand piled with tangles of storm-tossed logs and fringed with emerald grass. From a distance, the beach looked pristine.
But as our boat pulled closer, we began to see what we had come for: trash. Chunks of polystyrene foam, plastic bottles, lengths of line, bits of faded blue tarp and pieces of netting were wedged in the piles of driftwood and strewn in the beach grass. It was time to get to work.
I was in Sitka to take part in a series of beach cleanups that brought together staff from Ocean Conservancy, the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation and the Sitka Sound Science Center, along with volunteers from Allen Marine and Holland America Line. Together, we set out to find and remove marine debris that had washed up on the shores of nearby islands.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued an interim permit that authorizes Shell Oil to begin initial drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea — part of the Arctic Ocean northwest of Alaska. The decision does not allow Shell to drill into known oil or gas-bearing layers. Even so, it is a significant step in the wrong direction.
BSEE Director James Watson claimed that today’s permit decision is consistent with the agency’s commitment to use the “highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards.”
It sure doesn’t seem that way.
If BSEE were serious about holding Shell to the highest standards, the agency would insist that no drilling take place until all of Shell’s oil spill response tools are on site and ready to respond in the event of an emergency. Instead, BSEE’s decision will allow Shell to drill roughly 1,400 feet below the ocean floor without an oil spill response barge and containment system on site.
Shell’s oil spill response barge and containment system remain in Bellingham, WA, far from the Arctic. The barge is still undergoing renovations required before the Coast Guard can certify the vessel for use in the Arctic. The containment system has not received final certification, either. When and if the Coast Guard certifies the barge and containment system, it will take roughly two weeks to get them from Bellingham to Shell’s drilling site in the Chukchi. Two weeks would be an agonizingly long time to wait if something went wrong during the initial phases of Shell’s operations. Continue reading »
For years, Shell has tried to carry out a risky plan to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. This summer, it looked like Shell would finally get its wish.
In June, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that it was “highly likely” that the federal government would issue the permits Shell needs to conduct Arctic drilling operations. Later, Secretary Salazar told the New York Times that he would decide no later than August 15 whether to allow Shell to conduct exploration drilling in the Arctic this summer.
August 15 came and went, and there was no decision from Secretary Salazar. Why the delay? The delay comes because, as Ocean Conservancy and others have stated repeatedly, Shell is not ready to drill.
Despite having years to prepare, Shell has been unable to complete a series of required modifications to its oil spill containment barge. The barge, the Arctic Challenger,is an integral part of Shell’s oil spill response plan for the Arctic Ocean. But the vessel is currently undergoing modifications in Bellingham, Washington—far from the Arctic.
A young Steller’s eider, one of the rarest birds in Alaska. Credit: Heidi Cline, Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service
It’s been two years since the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy – the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history. Think back to the awful images of that spill: oil billowing into the ocean from BP’s Macondo well, people frantically setting up boom to protect the vulnerable coast, and skimmers trying to scoop up some fraction of the oil that was spreading over the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Now try to imagine responding to a similar spill in the Arctic Ocean. There would be no major ports from which to stage responders and vessels. There would be no roads to move equipment along the coast. Responders might have to cope with sea ice that would clog skimmers and wreak havoc on boom. And they might have to call off cleanup efforts because of the Arctic’s notoriously challenging conditions – conditions that can include extreme cold, thick fog, prolonged darkness and hurricane-force winds.
Reckless Arctic drilling isn’t worth the risk. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.
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.
This afternoon, the House Natural Resources Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), is poised to pass a bill designed to vastly expand access to offshore drilling for oil and gas. The legislation would open up large areas of our ocean—places like the Southern Pacific, Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and large swaths of the Atlantic seaboard—to future oil and gas drilling.
This “drill now, drill everywhere” bill is exactly the wrong approach. The Department of Interior’s recently released program for offshore oil and gas leasing will already allow access to 75% of our known offshore oil and gas reserves. There’s no need to expose additional areas of the ocean to the threats posed by offshore drilling. And there’s certainly no reason to speed up Arctic permitting and drilling a time when Shell Oil has admitted that it cannot comply with its Arctic air permits, has been unable to keep its Arctic drillship at anchor without it floating away, and is backing away from its pledge that it will be able to clean up spilled oil in the Arctic (Shell now says that it will merely “encounter” the spilled oil).
Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decisions on Arctic oil and gas lease sales in the new five year offshore drilling program. That day, there was both promising and discouraging news. Today, however, the news is not mixed: Ocean Conservancy – in conjunction with a coalition of like-minded groups – is filing suit in federal court challenging the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) approval of Shell Oil’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea. Instead of approving plans that authorize risky exploration drilling, the Obama administration should focus on developing and implementing a comprehensive science and monitoring plan so that we can make more informed decisions about whether, when, where, and how to allow drilling in the Arctic.
Shell is proposing major industrial activity in a remote and dangerous place. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures, and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. And on top of all that, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure: There are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports. The nearest Coast Guard station is over 1,000 miles away.