The Blog Aquatic » Arctic Ocean News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:21:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why We’re Having Giant Waves in the Arctic Ocean Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:00:47 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: Jupiter Unlimited

Findings from a recent study suggest that continued reductions in seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean will lead to bigger waves capable of breaking up remaining sea ice and accelerating ice loss. In the past, much of the Arctic Ocean was covered with sea ice all year round. With little open water, even the fiercest storms could not generate big waves.

In recent years, though, sea ice has retreated dramatically in the summertime, creating much more open water. That open water provides ample room for storms to generate significant waves in the Arctic Ocean. According to an article in the Washington Post, authors of the study found that a September 2012 storm in the Beaufort Sea, off the northern coast of Alaska, generated average wave heights of 16 feet during a peak period. At least one wave reached 29 feet in height. The researchers observed that these new, bigger and more powerful waves could “be the feedback mechanism which drives the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer.”

Results from the research appear in Geophysical Research Letters are available here.

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Help Us Say No to Risky Arctic Drilling Thu, 24 Jul 2014 13:21:51 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Breaking: The U.S. government is beginning to make plans for future offshore oil and gas operations—and those plans could open Arctic waters to risky drilling.

This follows Shell Oil’s decision to abandon Arctic drilling this summer, after an accident-plagued 2012.

If a disaster like BP Deepwater Horizon happened in the Arctic, spill response would be even more challenging. The Arctic’s sea ice, freezing temperatures, gale force winds, and lack of visibility could make cleanup next to impossible.

The government’s public comment period ends on July 31, so we only have 10 days to respond. We need you to tell the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to say no to risky Arctic drilling now.

Take a stand against oil and gas operations in the Arctic Ocean. Act now, and tell BOEM not to open additional Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling!

The Arctic Ocean and all those who depend on it are already under stress. The rapidly changing climate, including extreme deterioration of the summer sea ice, is putting Arctic marine animals at risk. Many people who live in coastal communities in the Arctic depend on a clean and healthy ocean to support their subsistence way of life. Offshore drilling for oil and gas would expose this already fragile ecosystem to significant noise, pollution and traffic.

Stand against risky oil and gas operations in the Arctic Ocean. Tell BOEM not to open additional Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling!


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Shell CEO Says No Arctic Drilling in 2014 Fri, 31 Jan 2014 17:48:59 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

On Jan. 30, Shell Oil announced that it has postponed plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska in 2014. Shell’s decision followed a recent court decision that threw into question the status of Shell’s offshore oil leases in the Chukchi Sea—but other factors are at play, too.

As explained in my previous blog post, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that an environmental analysis associated with the 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale was faulty. Under the court’s decision, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will have to revisit that environmental analysis, and then decide whether to affirm its 2008 decision to sell the offshore leases. In the wake of the court ruling, Shell’s new CEO announced that the company is “not prepared to commit further resources for drilling in Alaska in 2014.”

Certainly, the 9th Circuit’s ruling influenced Shell’s decision to cancel its plans for a 2014 Arctic drilling program. But the court decision is not the only factor that should cause Shell and other oil and gas companies to reconsider their pursuit of Arctic oil.

First, operating in the Arctic is difficult and expensive, something that is well-illustrated by Shell’s failed foray into the Arctic Ocean in 2012. After a season plagued by mishaps and accidents, Shell limped away without completing a single Arctic well. Both of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs experienced major difficulties: The Noble Discoverer had propulsion problems and was cited by the U.S. Coast Guard for unauthorized discharges, and the drilling unit Kulluk ran aground near Kodiak Island during a storm in the Gulf of Alaska. Both vessels had to be dry-towed to Asia for repair. If nothing else, Shell’s experience in 2012 is a stark reminder that accessing Arctic oil won’t be easy, and it won’t come cheap. After issuing a “dreadful profit warning” early in 2014, some observers suggest that it no longer makes sense for Shell to pursue difficult and costly Arctic oil.

Second, U.S. regulators are beginning to recognize and address the special dangers and risks associated with Arctic drilling, and companies that want to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will need to meet higher standards. For example, after Shell’s ill-fated 2012 drilling season, the Department of the Interior (DOI) imposed special, heightened requirements on Shell for any future Arctic operations. DOI also announced its intent to craft new offshore drilling regulations that specifically target operations off the coast of Alaska. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard should soon release the results of its investigation into the grounding of the Kulluk, which could trigger regulatory or policy changes related to the marine transport aspects of oil exploration in the Arctic. In short, oil companies that want to drill in the U.S. Arctic will likely have to learn—and play by—a new and tougher set of rules.

Third, oil companies still have not demonstrated that they can effectively clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic waters. It was hard enough for oil spill response organizations to cope with the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In an Arctic oil spill, responders would not only have to clean up spilled oil; they may have to contend with sea ice, darkness, bitter cold, fog or hurricane-force winds, not to mention the Arctic’s lack of infrastructure and remote location (the U.S. Coast Guard station in Kodiak is more than 900 miles from the city of Barrow on Alaska’s North Slope). Although major oil spills are relatively rare, they can have catastrophic consequences for fish and wildlife, marine and coastal environments, and residents of affected coastal communities. After assessing these risks, French giant Total concluded that the risk of an oil spill in Arctic waters was too high to justify drilling.

All these factors suggest that oil companies and government regulators should reassess whether drilling in the Arctic Ocean really makes sense, both from a financial and an environmental perspective. In the meantime, there should be a timeout on offshore drilling in the Arctic. That time could be put to good use by improving our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protecting important ecological and subsistence areas, and developing effective methods to clean up oil spills in Arctic waters.

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Court Decision is a Step in the Right Direction for the Arctic Ocean Fri, 24 Jan 2014 20:02:09 +0000 Andrew Hartsig 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.

The 9th Circuit determined that BOEM’s use of the low-end estimate was unjustified. Use of the low-end estimate, the court observed, skewed BOEM’s analysis in a way that minimized potential environmental impacts. If BOEM had included higher estimates of oil production, the agency’s analysis may have revealed the potential for greater environmental damage — and that could have influenced BOEM’s decision about whether or how to proceed with the lease sale. The court concluded that basing an environmental analysis on the lowest possible oil production was unlawful; instead, BOEM must consider the “full range” of oil production estimates in its environmental analyses.

The court’s ruling makes good sense. Requiring BOEM to include the full range of potential oil production volumes from offshore lease sales will help ensure that environmental analyses capture the potential for more serious environmental impacts, including impacts to people, wildlife and fish, habitat, and climate. That, in turn, will give government agencies and stakeholders a better understanding of the risks that accompany offshore drilling and enable better decisions about whether and how to allow offshore drilling in the future.

How does all this affect the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea lease sale? In some ways, the court’s decision requires BOEM to go back to square one. The agency must redo or supplement its environmental analysis, and this time BOEM must include higher estimates of oil production and consider the potential for more significant environmental impacts. Once BOEM has updated its environmental analysis, it must decide whether to affirm its 2008 decision to hold the lease sale.

In the meantime, BOEM must also decide how to treat the offshore leases that were purchased by oil companies like Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil in 2008. Given the uncertain status of the Chukchi leases, BOEM should not allow any oil and gas activity on those leases until the agency has updated its environmental analysis and decided whether to affirm the lease sale. In other words, Shell’s plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea may be on hold for some time to come.

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Court Upholds Shell’s Spill Response Plans Despite Past Failures and Serious Questions Tue, 06 Aug 2013 18:22:18 +0000 Andrew Hartsig 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.

All of these events happened during the same season that the U.S. Coast Guard held back Shell’s oil spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, in Bellingham, Wash., for failure to meet required safety standards. The Arctic Challenger was stuck in Bellingham until October 11, almost the end of the drilling season and long after Shell’s 2012 mistakes in Alaska began.

Similarly, Shell’s oil spill containment dome was not ready in time for the drilling season. When Shell tested the dome in September 2012, it failed spectacularly and was so badly damaged that Shell was forced to call off its plans to drill into oil-bearing layers.

Shell’s 2012 drilling season proved that even one of the world’s biggest companies was not prepared for operations in the challenging and remote waters of the Arctic Ocean. From the near-grounding of the Noble Discoverer to the troubles with oil spill response equipment to the actual grounding of the Kulluk, Shell’s actions evidence a lack of preparedness and an inability to work safely and responsibly in the Arctic.

The court may have decided that Shell’s plan complied with the law yesterday, but that does nothing to change the fact that any oil spill response in the Arctic, just like any attempts to drill there, will be incredibly difficult.

We all know that oil and water don’t mix, and that’s especially true in the Arctic. After seeing Shell’s track record, where failure to meet expectations has been the norm, there is no doubt that we should pause and reconsider whether and how oil companies can operate safely in the Arctic under such risky conditions.


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Smarter Arctic Choices Begin With More Arctic Science Fri, 21 Sep 2012 21:01:48 +0000 Andrew Hartsig
Today, Alaska Senator Mark Begich introduced important new legislation that would establish a permanent program to conduct research, monitoring, and observing activities in the Arctic. If passed, Senator Begich’s bill could lead to significant advances in Arctic science that can then be used to support decisions about the management of a region that is crucial not only to the people who live there, but to the world.

Senator Begich’s bill – the Arctic Research, Monitoring, and Observing Act of 2012 – recognizes that the Arctic is undergoing profound changes. Temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate of the global average, seasonal sea ice is diminishing rapidly, and there is increased interest in oil exploration, commercial fishing, shipping, and tourism. As the legislation acknowledges, however, lack of integration and coordination among existing Arctic research and science programs has limited our ability to understand the important changes that are taking place in the Arctic. And our understanding of the Arctic marine ecosystem, which provides irreplaceable benefits, is further hampered by a lack of reliable baseline data, critical science gaps, and limited documentation and application/use of traditional knowledge. In addition to urgently needed baseline data and analysis of ecosystem functions in Arctic marine waters, the legislation would enable the gathering of information about subsistence resources and patterns of use in local economies, which are essential to the people and cultures coastal communities in the Arctic.

Senator Begich’s bill takes several steps to address these problems. First, it calls on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission to establish a national Arctic research program plan to help coordinate scientific research activities in the region. Second, it funds a merit-based grant program that will support new scientific research and field-work in the Arctic. Third, the bill provides funding to establish and support long-term ocean observing systems and monitoring programs in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, and North Pacific.

If these provisions become law and are implemented correctly, they could function as a long-term, integrated science and monitoring program for the Arctic, something that Ocean Conservancy has long advocated. A coordinated research program would help fill important gaps in our knowledge of Arctic ecosystems and identify areas that are especially important to the functioning of the marine ecosystem. Just as important, a long-term monitoring and observing program would help us understand how the region is responding to climate change and industrial development.

This kind of understanding gives policy-makers, decision-makers and stakeholders the knowledge they need to make informed choices about activities such as oil exploration, shipping, and commercial fishing. It can also inform decisions about conservation. For instance, as scientists gain more knowledge about the Arctic marine ecosystem and as they integrate and synthesize that knowledge they will be better able to identify critical areas that should be protected from development activities. And that will help ensure that the Arctic Ocean remains an intact and productive ecosystem well into the future.

Federal agencies are already making management decisions that will have significant impacts on the future of the Arctic Ocean. Americans want those decisions to be based on sound science and to ensure sustainable uses of our ocean resources for this and future generations. The Arctic research, monitoring, and observing activities addressed by Senator Begich’s bill would take an essential step toward that goal.

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Not Arctic Ready: Shell Oil Is Unprepared Thu, 16 Aug 2012 15:46:56 +0000 Andrew Hartsig Arctic sea ice

© Corbis. All rights reserved.

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.

Until the required modifications to the vessel are complete, the Coast Guard cannot certify the vessel and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement cannot issue Shell the final permits it needs to begin drilling.

In a discussion a couple of days ago, Secretary Salazar recognized that the decision to approve or deny Shell’s final permits would be delayed beyond August 15. He placed the blame squarely on Shell, saying, “the cause for any delay here is Shell’s construction of its vessel … They have not been able to get it done.”

Shell’s inability to satisfy the Coast Guard requirements is part of a larger pattern of failures. As I wrote a few weeks ago:

  • Shell has admitted that it won’t be able to comply with the terms of its EPA air permits;
  • It has backpedaled from its claim that it will be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill; and
  • It failed to maintain control of its 500-foot drillship—causing it to nearly run aground near Dutch Harbor.

These failures convey a clear message: Shell is not ready to drill in the Arctic.

On top of that, Shell is rapidly running out of time. One report suggests that the Arctic Challenger won’t be ready until the end of August. Even after renovations are complete, it would likely take a couple of weeks for the vessel to travel from Bellingham to the Arctic Ocean. That could mean that the Arctic Challenger would not be in place until mid-September.

The environmental community, including Ocean Conservancy, has shone a bright light on Shell’s reckless Arctic drilling plans, and we should be encouraged by the fact that Interior has taken steps to put safety first and delay its decision on allowing Shell to drill.

However, if drilling permits are eventually approved, those delays come with their own risks.

Federally approved exploration plans require Shell to stop drilling in known hydrocarbon zones in the Chukchi Sea by September 24.

In the Beaufort Sea, Shell has agreed not to drill during a subsistence hunting period that begins August 25 and could last several weeks or more. Drilling can take place after the subsistence hunting period ends, but Shell must stop drilling into oil-bearing layers in the Beaufort Sea by October 31.

Shell has said it will take between 20 and 40 days to drill its Arctic wells. Under these deadlines, Shell would have to rush to complete even a single well in the Arctic. And rushing in the Arctic is not a smart approach.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is incredibly risky under the best of circumstances. Shell’s recent history of failures and missteps shows that the company is not ready to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

There’s no need for Secretary Salazar to delay his decision any longer: He should act now to deny Shell’s permits and keep the company out of the Arctic Ocean this summer.

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