The Blog Aquatic » chukchi sea News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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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Commission releases report on Arctic oil spill research Wed, 05 Dec 2012 18:16:01 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

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.

The Commission’s November report contains an inventory of past and ongoing research efforts related to oil spills in Arctic waters. The Commission notes that this work “provides a credible foundation for applied research and engineering designs” and “developing more effective response and recovery techniques.”

But the report makes clear that the existing oil spill research is not sufficient. The Commission report highlights the need for further exploration of spill preparedness, spill response effectiveness, and damage assessment. More specifically, the Commission notes that additional research is needed on a host of topics, including issues such as:

- Establishment of environmental baseline conditions;

- Assessment of environmentally sensitive areas;

- Development of oil detection and mapping techniques and modeling of oil spills in, under, and within icy or ice-covered waters;

- Determination of the impacts of response techniques such as burning spilled oil and use of chemical dispersants and “herders”; and

- Assessment of impacts of Arctic oil spills on humans and wildlife.

The Arctic Research Commission’s report ends with a series of recommendations for additional research on spill delineation and mitigation, response technologies for cleanup and recovery of spilled oil, and the fate of oil and its effects on the environment. These recommendations span several pages and include topics that are fundamental to oil spill prevention and recovery in Arctic waters.

If nothing else, the Commission’s recommendations make clear that there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the behavior of oil in icy waters and oil’s impacts on the Arctic environment. They also make clear that there are significant limitations on our ability to prevent and respond effectively to oil spills in the Arctic Ocean. Oil companies who wish to drill in the Arctic–and the government agencies that regulate such activities–should acknowledge these information gaps and be realistic about the limited capabilities of response systems proposed for use in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Damage from a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could be catastrophic. That’s why Ocean Conservancy opposes Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2013. Instead of moving ahead with risky offshore drilling in the Arctic, scientists need to develop a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, federal agencies need to identify and protect important ecological and subsistence areas, and oil companies need to demonstrate that they can effectively clean up a major oil spill under Arctic conditions.

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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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Say No to Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plans Mon, 30 Jul 2012 19:59:40 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

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.

Timing is everything: Shell looks to begin drilling in the Arctic Chukchi Sea in a matter of weeks. Please take a minute to sign our petition and help us stop it.

Spectacled Eider. Credit: Laura L. Whitehouse, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The potential for disaster should be obvious, even to Shell: Since 2000, there have been no tests of skimming and booming in U.S. Arctic waters. And the tests that were conducted 12 years ago were considered a “failure.”  No evidence exists that Shell is capable of effectively cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic. So why are we turning a blind eye to this and allowing them to drill anyway?

What’s more, Shell’s recent record of missteps is very troubling:

Not long ago, Shell lost control of its drill ship, which almost ran aground near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Winds reaching 35 mph pushed the vessel dangerously close to the shore – and some locals insist it did, in fact, hit the beach. When reporters started questioning Shell’s claim that it would be able recover 95 percent of spilled oil after a worst-case discharge in the Arctic, Shell backpedaled. The oil company insisted it only claimed it would “encounter” spilled oil – not “recover” it. Shell is also having trouble getting Coast Guard certification for one of its oil spill response vessels, and the company has admitted it won’t be able to satisfy the air quality standards established in its Clean Air Act permit.

The Obama Administration appears to be taking notice and still has an opportunity to deny the final permits that Shell needs before it can begin drilling. Less than one month ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it was “highly likely” he would grant the permits and that “the response capability is there.” But more recently, his tone changed: Salazar noted he has “not yet given the final permits to Shell.” And he clarified that “we don’t know if [drilling] will occur, and if it does occur, it will be done under the most watched program in the history of the United States.”

We’re glad Secretary Salazar is considering denying the permits – that would be the right thing to do. But he’s wrong in thinking that “watching” the program could be enough. As BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster painfully taught us, we must plan for the worst. In the Arctic, that means we must be ready for a major oil spill and have confidence we can effectively recover the oil and protect this fragile ecosystem. Shell has not met that standard.

This is the moment when we need to show our force in numbers – to demonstrate to Secretary Salazar, President Obama, Shell Oil and the world that we will not sit idly by while this potential disaster is on the verge of becoming a reality. Raise your hand, sign our petition and stand with us against Shell’s dangerous project in the Arctic.

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Don’t Let Shell Drill in the Arctic Based on Shortcuts and Excuses Sat, 21 Jul 2012 13:36:40 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

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.

In the face of these broken promises, stand with us against Shell’s reckless plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.

First, Shell is changing its story about its capacity to clean up spilled oil in the Arctic. Portions of Shell’s Arctic oil spill response plans are based the unrealistic assumption that Shell would be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst case spill. Actual recovery rates—even in optimum conditions—rarely exceed 20 percent. When confronted with questions about its spill plan, Shell back-pedaled, claiming that it didn’t mean that it would actually be able to clean up 90 percent of the spilled oil, only that it would be able to “encounter” 90 percent of the spilled oil.

Second, Shell is having problems obtaining Coast Guard certification for one of its oil spill response vessels. Because of the harsh conditions of the Arctic, the Coast Guard requires Shell’s vessel to withstand the conditions and forces generated by a severe storm that might happen once every 100 years. Shell’s vessel failed to meet that stringent standard. In the face of this setback, Shell suggested a shortcut: it asked the Coast Guard to use a less rigorous certification standard.

Third, Shell recently admitted that it won’t be able to meet the air emissions standards established in Clean Air Act permits granted by the EPA. Instead of addressing the issue at an earlier stage, Shell waited and hoped for the best. When tests showed that emissions from Shell’s drillship and oil spill response vessel would exceed the air pollution limits set by the permits, Shell once again tried for an easy way out, requesting that EPA grant a waiver to allow the vessels to emit more pollutants.

And then there’s the incident in Dutch Harbor… This past Saturday, Shell’s 500 foot drillship—the Noble Discoverer—dragged anchor and nearly ran aground (or did in fact run aground, depending on who you ask) near Dutch Harbor in Alaska. Photos show the Discoverer very close to the shoreline. Fortunately, tugs were able to pull the drillship back to deeper waters. If Shell was not able to control its drillship in the relatively protected waters of Unalaska Bay, how will it fare in the more challenging environment of the Chukchi Sea?

Stand with us to tell the government it can’t accept Shell’s excuses and shortcuts, and it shouldn’t allow Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean this summer.

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