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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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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My latest Huffington Post piece calls for a New Year’s resolution that protects our ocean from reckless oil drilling. We’re two weeks into 2013, and Shell Oil has already made headlines with several missteps, including losing control of one of its Arctic drill rigs in the Gulf of Alaska.
How many strikes will Shell get before the Obama administration agrees to stop Arctic drilling operations at this time? The latest failure on Shell’s part – violation of EPA air permits – is even more striking considering that Shell had proposed the more lenient permit levels, and even those levels didn’t suffice. The Interior Department’s review of the 2012 drilling season should be thorough, comprehensive and objective; and until the results are made public, operations should not move forward.
As I highlight on Huffington Post:
The Arctic is an unforgiving environment, and oil companies like Shell are not in control. In light of Shell’s demonstrated inability to carry out safe, responsible Arctic operations, the Interior Department’s forthcoming assessment must be transparent, objective and comprehensive in scope — including a rigorous investigation of Shell’s drilling rig and oil spill response equipment failures.
Shell’s pattern of failures and near-misses demands an honest and thoughtful reconsideration of the company’s plans for the Arctic. We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the region, protected important ecological and subsistence areas, and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water.
Read the full story here.
Last year ended badly for the two drill rigs used by Shell Oil for its Arctic operations. A Coast Guard inspection in late November revealed significant problems with safety and pollution prevention equipment aboard the drillship Noble Discoverer. More recently—and more dramatically—a powerful storm in the North Pacific drove Shell’s drilling unit Kulluk aground off the coast of Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, the Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s crew before the drilling unit grounded and so far, there are have been no serious injuries. The operation to salvage the Kulluk is ongoing, and we hope that all responders and salvors stay safe.
The Kulluk’s problems began on Thursday, December 27 when heavy seas snapped the towline between the Kulluk and Shell’s tug, the Aiviq. Crews managed to reestablish the towline connecting the vessels, but the Aiviq then experienced total engine failure, leaving both tug and tow adrift in rough seas and high winds. Shell sent additional vessels to the scene to assist, and the Coast Guard responded with two cutters and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters. At Shell’s request, the Coast Guard evacuated the 18-person crew of the Kulluk on December 29. Coast Guard helicopters delivered engine parts and technicians to the Aiviq that enabled repair of the tug’s engines but—despite repeated efforts over the course of several days—neither the Aiviq nor any of the other response vessels were able to tow the Kulluk to safety.
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This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements. The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010, as measured by satellites. Every summer the Arctic ice cap melts down to what scientists call its “minimum” before colder weather builds the ice cover back up. The size of this minimum remains in a long-term decline. Credit: NASA
The National Snow and Ice Data Center has just announced critical ice in the Arctic Ocean melted to record low levels this summer. The Washington Post reports:
“As of Sunday, the Arctic sea ice cover had shrunk to 1.58 million square miles, the smallest area since satellite measurement began in 1979. With the melting season not yet over, the ice will almost certainly contract further in the coming weeks before it begins to re-form.”
Arctic sea ice plays an important role in moderating the global climate. The bright surface of sea ice reflects sunlight back into space. Each year, portions of it melt in the summer, exposing the ocean surface. While the sea ice can reflect about 50 to 70 percent of the sunlight back into space, the dark ocean absorbs approximately 90 percent of the sunlight, heating the water and causing Arctic temperatures to rise even further. This process creates a feedback loop as warmer temperatures cause further sea ice melt. The reduction in Arctic sea ice has far reaching impacts on global atmospheric patterns and ocean circulation. Learn more about the important role sea ice plays in regulating the global climate here.
Here at Ocean Conservancy, we have been urging the government to stop Shell’s Arctic drilling plans and protect this fragile and vitally important region. A green light for Arctic drilling would mean placing an already stressed environment in greater jeopardy, which isn’t worth the risk. The decrease in seasonal sea ice has created the potential for a dramatic expansion of oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters. Currently, there is no adequate technology, technique or infrastructure to respond effectively to an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, and darkness, hazardous weather, or sea conditions could delay spill response for weeks.
Even without a major accident, day-to-day oil and gas operations create significant environmental disturbances. Seismic testing, exploratory drilling, and increased vessel and air traffic associated with oil and gas operations generate noise and air and water pollution, with the potential to affect whales and other marine animals and, in turn, the people who depend on them for subsistence.
Did you know bowhead whales can boast some surprising statistics?
- their blubber is more than a foot thick, and
- their baleen—plates in the mouth that filter prey from water—can grow 15 feet long.
But one of their most eye-opening attributes is their longevity. Chemical analysis on samples from whale eyeballs the size of billiard balls revealed ages up to an estimated 211 years. Accounting for a margin of error of about 16 percent, the oldest bowhead studied could have been up to 245 years old—no other mammal is known to have lived as long.
More than 13,000 bowheads swim off Alaska’s coast, but threats are growing. Oil and gas exploration will impact bowhead habitat and increases the stresses whales face. Continue reading »
Arctic drilling burnoff. Credit: Getty Images
Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decisions on Arctic oil and gas lease sales in the new five year offshore drilling program. That day, there was both promising and discouraging news. Today, however, the news is not mixed: Ocean Conservancy – in conjunction with a coalition of like-minded groups – is filing suit in federal court challenging the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) approval of Shell Oil’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea. Instead of approving plans that authorize risky exploration drilling, the Obama administration should focus on developing and implementing a comprehensive science and monitoring plan so that we can make more informed decisions about whether, when, where, and how to allow drilling in the Arctic.
Shell is proposing major industrial activity in a remote and dangerous place. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures, and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. And on top of all that, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure: There are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports. The nearest Coast Guard station is over 1,000 miles away.
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