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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Court Decision is a Step in the Right Direction for the Arctic Ocean

Posted On January 24, 2014 by

Large ice flows in the Arctic Ocean

Copyright Corbis. All rights reserved.

On Jan. 22, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that will help ensure federal agencies and the public have a more complete picture of the risks and environmental impacts that could result from the sale of offshore oil and gas leases. The court’s decision also raises serious questions about the status of Arctic leases in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska, and could make it difficult for companies like Shell Oil to drill for oil anytime soon.

The 9th Circuit ruled that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) did not follow legal requirements when the agency assessed the potential environmental impacts of a 2008 offshore oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea. Before deciding whether to sell offshore oil and gas leases, BOEM conducts an environmental analysis. Part of that analysis assesses the potential impact of oil and gas development that might result from the lease sale. In the case of the Chukchi Sea lease sale, BOEM’s analysis assumed the sale of the offshore leases would result in the production of a relatively low volume of oil. In fact, BOEM used the very lowest estimate that could possibly be expected.

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Why Now is Not the Time for a New Offshore Lease Sale in the Chukchi Sea

Posted On October 30, 2013 by

Photo: Leigh Elliot / Photo Contest 2011

Just before the government shutdown brought federal agencies to a standstill at the beginning of October, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issued a “call for information” for a potential new oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of northwest Alaska. A new Chukchi Sea lease sale would allow oil and gas companies to buy additional oil leases in one of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet. The response to the call for information is easy: now is not the time to sell new oil and gas lease sales in the Chukchi Sea.

The last oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea was in 2008. Since that time, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico reminded the world that when things go wrong, offshore drilling can have catastrophic consequences for fish and wildlife, marine and coastal environments, and residents of affected coastal communities. The Deepwater Horizon disaster also triggered new safety and environmental protection requirements for oil and gas companies that wish to drill in Arctic waters.

Two years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Royal Dutch Shell tried its hand at drilling in the Arctic and experienced a whole series of disasters. Among other things, a massive ice floe blocked access to one drilling site for about two weeks, the company’s drilling vessels violated their air emission permits, the drillship Discoverer suffered propulsion problems and had to be towed to port, and the drilling unit Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island and had to be salvaged by outside consultants. For all that, Shell failed to complete a single Arctic well.

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Reprieve from Arctic Drilling Creates an Opportunity for Progress

Posted On September 10, 2013 by

Polar Bear Mother and Cubs near Pack Ice

Photo © Image Plan/Corbis

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Shell Oil had a fleet of vessels in the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to drill for oil off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. But Shell’s 2012 season was plagued by mishaps and mistakes, from the near-grounding of the drillship Noble Discoverer last July to the all-too-real grounding of the drilling unit Kulluk on New Year’s Day this year.

In the end, Shell failed to complete a single Arctic well, and both the Noble Discoverer and Kulluk were so badly damaged that they were towed to Asia for repair earlier this year. In fact, the EPA just fined Shell $1.1 million for unauthorized levels of air pollution from the two vessels — yet another reminder that Shell was not prepared for its Arctic operations.

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Court Upholds Shell’s Spill Response Plans Despite Past Failures and Serious Questions

Posted On August 6, 2013 by

Workers in the ArcticYesterday in Anchorage, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s decision to approve Shell Oil’s plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. The court’s decision is a setback, but it doesn’t change the fact that Shell has failed to meet its obligation to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic at every turn.

The 2012 Arctic drilling season for Shell was remarkably calamitous. From the beginning, Shell experienced failures when their drillship the Noble Discoverer nearly ran aground in Unalaska Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. By the end of the drilling season, the same drillship developed propulsion problems and needed to be towed into port in Seward for repairs.

Then in late December, the Kulluk, Shell’s other Arctic drilling unit, ran aground off of Sitkalidak Island after heavy seas snapped the towline between it and Shell’s tugboat. After a salvage operation plucked the Kulluk off the coast—thankfully with no major injuries or spills—it was eventually dry-towed to Asia for repairs in March.

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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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