Yesterday 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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Credit: Laura L. Whitehouse FWS
America’s Arctic is an extraordinary place, and it has fired my imagination since I first conducted field research in coastal northwest Alaska in 1977. Although indigenous people have occupied and influenced Alaska’s coast for millennia, the Arctic coastal and marine ecosystem is still wild, pristine and productive. There is still largely a full complement of native fish and wildlife that not only persist, but thrive in the Arctic alongside human communities with vibrant cultures.
Since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 however, our attempts to access this energy have transformed the landscape of the central Arctic and prompted many changes for the people who live and work, study and recreate in the region. And the pace of change is only accelerating.
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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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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.
Walrus cow with calf on ice. Credit: U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region
Last month, the United States Arctic Research Commission released a report containing an inventory of ongoing research activities and a series of recommendations regarding oil spills in Arctic waters. The report shows that governments, industry, nonprofit organizations, and others are engaged in a range of Arctic oil spill research development activities. At the same time, however, the report’s recommendations show that much more work is needed to improve oil spill preparedness and response capabilities in the Arctic.
The Arctic Research Commission is an independent federal agency established by the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984. Among other things, the Commission is tasked with establishing policy, priorities, and goals to support a plan for scientific research in the Arctic; promoting cooperation and collaboration among federal agencies active in Arctic research; assisting in the development of a five-year Arctic research plan; and working with Arctic residents, international research programs, and others to develop a broad perspective on Arctic research needs. Continue reading »
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.
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Yesterday, Shell admitted what we’ve known all along: the company is just not ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.
This past weekend, a failed test of Shell’s oil spill containment system resulted in damage to the dome designed to contain oil in the event of a spill. In light of the damage to the containment dome, Shell announced that it was abandoning its plans to drill into oil-bearing layers in the Arctic Ocean this summer. The company said its drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean this summer would be limited to “top holes”—initial sections of wells that do not penetrate into known oil-bearing layers.
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