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.
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.
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 decision is disappointing — especially considering that it was just a year ago that the U.S. Geological Survey released a report outlining significant gaps in science that must be addressed to make no-regrets choices about oil and gas development in the Arctic. Many of those gaps have yet to be filled.
How can federal agencies make informed decisions about future lease sales or exploration drilling without a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem?