Ocean Currents » Drilling http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Wed, 30 Sep 2015 23:26:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Victory in the Arctic: Shell Terminates Drilling Activities in the Chukchi Sea http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/28/victory-in-the-arctic-shell-terminates-drilling-activities-in-the-chukchi-sea/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/28/victory-in-the-arctic-shell-terminates-drilling-activities-in-the-chukchi-sea/#comments Mon, 28 Sep 2015 19:17:23 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10779

Early on Monday morning, Shell announced that it would no longer pursue oil-drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska. Shell’s announcement has been a long time coming, and marks a major victory for all those who have opposed Arctic drilling as too risky and too much of a threat to the Arctic ecosystem and the planet’s climate.

Shell purchased its Chukchi Sea leases in 2008, but was precluded from drilling on its leases for many years. Among other things, legal challenges exposed flaws in the government’s environmental analyses and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted in a temporary restriction on Arctic drilling. In 2012, Shell finally received the green light to drill in the Chukchi Sea, but the company was woefully unprepared for the challenge: vessels were not ready, spill response equipment failed under testing, equipment spewed air pollution in violation of standards and one of its drill rigs was swept ashore in a storm on the way back to Seattle. In the end, Shell failed to complete a single well in 2012.

This year, when Shell finally returned to the Arctic, it did so under intense scrutiny. Government regulators ensured that Shell conformed to rules designed to protect vulnerable species like Pacific walrus. This meant that Shell could only operate one of its two Arctic drilling rigs and could only drill for a short window of time during the ice-free summer season. Activists protested the presence of Shell’s Arctic vessels in in Seattle and Portland, highlighting the risk of an oil spill in icy and remote waters—and the risk to the planet’s climate if Shell found and developed a massive oil reservoir in the Arctic Ocean. And Shell encountered at least one problem reminiscent of its failed 2012 season when one of its ice-breaking vessels struck an uncharted object, opening a gash in its hull.

Despite these challenges, Shell persisted with its efforts to complete an exploration well in the Chukchi Sea. But when the company final did so earlier this summer, it found that there was not enough oil to justify additional exploration at the prospect. In a press release, Shell announced that it would “cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.” In addition to the sub-optimal results from the exploration well, Shell cited high costs and challenging regulations as reasons for giving up.

Shell’s decision to retreat from the Arctic Ocean is great news for the bowhead whales, walruses, ice-dependent seals and other wildlife species that could have been devastated by an oil spill in this remote region. Local communities depend on marine mammals like these to support a subsistence way of life that stretches back for thousands of years.

Shell’s decision to leave the Arctic Ocean should be viewed as an affirmation of all those who joined together in opposition to Shell’s risky drilling schemes. Now that the immediate threat of oil drilling has ended, we can focus on crafting sustainable solutions for long-term health in this rapidly changing region.

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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of the Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/11/14/the-9th-circuit-of-appeals-rules-in-favor-of-the-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/11/14/the-9th-circuit-of-appeals-rules-in-favor-of-the-ocean/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 19:30:42 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9515

Photo: Steven Dingeldein

Good news! The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just dismissed a case in which Shell sued Ocean Conservancy and several other conservation and Alaska Native organizations.

That’s right. Shell sued us. And not just once—three times.

Several years ago, federal agencies issued a series of permits that Shell needed to carry out drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean. Shell was worried that conservation organizations like Ocean Conservancy would challenge the validity of those permits, which might hinder its ability to drill. In response, Shell initiated a series of highly unusual preemptive lawsuits, naming Ocean Conservancy and others as defendants and asking the court to declare that the federal permits were lawful in all respects.

We felt strongly that Shell’s unconventional preemptive lawsuits were improper under the law. And we were concerned that Shell’s lawsuits were an attempt to intimidate nonprofit organizations and discourage them from opposing risky Arctic drilling. As a result, we and the other organizations moved to dismiss Shell’s preemptive lawsuits.

And this past Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with us.

The dismissal of Shell’s preemptive lawsuit sends a strong signal to Shell and other oil and gas companies:  Intimidation will not work and conservation organizations have a right to question and challenge federal permits that authorize risky Arctic drilling. Arctic wildlife and people who live in coastal communities in the Arctic depend on a clean and healthy ocean. We won’t stand by while Shell puts them all in danger, even if it means having to go to the courts to defend our—and all U.S. citizens’ —rights to ensure that our Arctic resources are protected.

And make no mistake, Shell’s proposals to drill in the Arctic Ocean pose a significant threat. In fact, a new federal analysis determined that there is a 75% chance of a large oil spill if oil and gas development and production goes forward in the offshore Arctic. A large spill could be catastrophic for the wildlife and the people who depend on the Arctic ocean—and cleaning up a spill would be all but impossible given the remoteness of the region, sea ice, severe weather, and lack of infrastructure.

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New Report Will Promote Integrated Arctic Management http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/30/new-report-will-promote-integrated-arctic-management/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/30/new-report-will-promote-integrated-arctic-management/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 15:03:53 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8881

Photo: Jay DeFehr

With a new University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) report, we finally have a comprehensive view of oil, gas, and commercial transportation development in Arctic Alaska.

In a report to the President issued last year, a federal interagency working group called for a new, integrated approach to stewardship and development decisions in the U.S. Arctic. This new approach—called “Integrated Arctic Management”—is intended to integrate and balance “environmental, economic, and cultural needs and objectives” in the region.

Effective application of Integrated Arctic Management demands not only an understanding of Arctic ecosystems, but an understanding of the impacts of industrial development in the region. Until now, information on industrial development in the U.S. Arctic has been available only in piecemeal fashion, scattered throughout a range of documents and publications. This has made it difficult to understand how planned and proposed development activities will intersect with existing industrial operations to affect the region as a whole.

Fortunately, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) recently released a report that addresses this information gap. The new report, entitled “A Synthesis of Existing, Planned, and Proposed Infrastructure and Operations Supporting Oil and Gas Activities and Commercial Transportation in Arctic Alaska,” takes a holistic view of industrial infrastructure and operations on Alaska’s North Slope. While the report is an independent publication of UAF, Ocean Conservancy provided support for the project and the underlying research and analysis.

The report compiles information about oil and gas activities and commercial transportation in the U.S. Arctic from a range of sources, including environmental analyses, planning documents, and industry materials. The report considers wells, roads, pipelines, and facilities that already exist in Arctic Alaska. It also looks at planned and proposed industrial infrastructure that may be built and operated in coming years, such as offshore energy development that could result from Shell’s oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. To help readers visualize the scope and scale of development operations, the report includes a variety of maps depicting different portions of the Arctic and the region as a whole. By assembling this information in one place, the synthesis gives stakeholders and decision-makers a valuable reference for the region that has been previously unavailable.

There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding increased energy development in Arctic Alaska, but the report makes clear that if planned and proposed projects go forward, they could result in a significant expansion of industrial infrastructure and operations in the region, both onshore and offshore. This could include the construction of hundreds of new structures, thousands of new wells, and thousands of miles of new pipelines and roads. The new industrial development would greatly expand the industrial “footprint” in Arctic Alaska.

The report does not take a position on this potential expansion of industrial development in the U.S. Arctic. It does, however, give decision-makers and stakeholders ready access to information that can help them better understand how proposed industrial development activities may combine in ways that could have profound impacts on Arctic ecosystems and people. In doing so, it can facilitate integrated, long-term decision-making that will minimize and mitigate negative impacts associated with development. This will provide a strong foundation from which to explore alternative visions for Arctic conservation and development—something that Ocean Conservancy plans to pursue in the coming year.

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Reprieve from Arctic Drilling Creates an Opportunity for Progress http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/09/10/reprieve-from-arctic-drilling-creates-an-opportunity-for-progress/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/09/10/reprieve-from-arctic-drilling-creates-an-opportunity-for-progress/#comments Tue, 10 Sep 2013 18:30:13 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6620 Polar Bear Mother and Cubs near Pack Ice

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.

Shell’s disastrous 2012 season caused oil companies to retreat from proposed offshore drilling plans in the U.S. Arctic. Shell abandoned its plan to drill wells in the Arctic Ocean this year, and ConocoPhillips and Statoil announced they won’t attempt to drill their leases in the Chukchi Sea until at least 2015. This summer, the Arctic Ocean got a reprieve.

Make no mistake, though: this is a temporary reprieve. Shell has made clear that it is still committed to drilling in the Arctic, and ConocoPhillips and Statoil have not given up on their Arctic oil leases either. As I’ve written before, the threat of drilling in Arctic waters is still very much alive.

Even so, this temporarily provides an important opportunity to advocate a better, more thoughtful approach to decision-making in the Arctic. That’s why Ocean Conservancy has been pushing for meaningful changes to the way that federal agencies plan for and manage oil and gas operations in the Arctic. Fortunately, we’re starting to see some progress.

For example, the Department of Interior has announced its intent to improve federal regulations that govern offshore oil and gas operations in the Arctic. We’ve long advocated this kind of reform, since existing regulations don’t reflect the special challenges presented by drilling in Arctic conditions. So far, the Interior Department is considering regulations relating to specific issues like containment systems, relief well capability, and mutual assistance and resource sharing in Arctic waters. Those changes would be a good first step, but the Interior Department also needs to undertake more comprehensive regulatory reform to ensure risks and benefits are weighed properly at the beginning of the planning process.

In addition, the Obama administration released a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region that crystallizes some important concepts. Among those, it calls for protection of the Arctic environment and conservation of Arctic resources, and it recognizes the need for scientific research and traditional knowledge to improve our understanding of the Arctic region. Moreover, the strategy endorses a more coordinated approach to Arctic decision-making called Integrated Arctic Management.

As my colleague Stan Senner noted in an earlier blog post, the piecemeal approach to decision-making that has been used in the Arctic so far has made it difficult to assess the cumulative impacts of multiple development decisions. Integrated Arctic Management is a different approach that should help to identify environmentally sensitive areas at the outset to help ensure they are protected, monitored and managed appropriately.

The Department of Interior’s new regulations and the Obama administration’s new National Strategy for the Arctic Region show promise, but they are still in early stages. Real change will come when the Interior Department finalizes comprehensive regulatory reform, and when the words and goals articulated in the National Strategy are realized in concrete conservation actions. We’re making progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Help us put Arctic drilling plans on ice until oil companies prove they can clean up an oil spill in severe Arctic conditions. Sign the petition today.

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A Break from Drilling Doesn’t Mean a Break From Protecting the Arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/05/16/a-break-from-drilling-doesnt-mean-a-break-from-protecting-the-arctic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/05/16/a-break-from-drilling-doesnt-mean-a-break-from-protecting-the-arctic/#comments Thu, 16 May 2013 22:34:57 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=5806

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.

Companies like Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil have not abandoned their quest for Arctic oil. Just last month, the news media reported that Shell was negotiating to extend its contract to use the Arctic drillship Noble Discoverer—a clear signal that the oil giant has not given up its plans for Arctic drilling. In other words, despite the current hiatus in offshore exploration in the U.S. Arctic, oil and gas operations pose an ongoing threat.

This is why now is the time to make meaningful changes in the way that government agencies plan for and manage oil and gas operations in the Arctic, including:

  • The Department of Interior (DOI) should follow through on its commitment to identify and protect important ecological and subsistence areas in the Arctic Ocean. Protecting these important areas from future oil and gas operations will help to preserve ecosystem resilience and prevent degradation and fragmentation.
  • DOI should also implement the recommendations found in its review of Shell’s 2012 Arctic exploration program, including the call to develop Arctic-specific standards to govern future drilling attempts in the region. Similarly, government agencies should heed the recommendations contained in a recent report released by former members of President Obama’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Commission. These proposals include, among other things, development of new regulations for Arctic waters and assessment of Arctic spill prevention and response technologies under adverse conditions.
  • Scientists still have much to learn about the Arctic’s rapidly changing marine ecosystem—particularly about the potential cumulative effects of climate change, ocean acidification and increasing industrial operations. It’s time to implement a comprehensive scientific research, monitoring and observation program that will advance scientific understanding of the Arctic and help managers make more informed decisions about whether and under what conditions to allow oil and gas lease sales, drilling, or development in the future.

A season-long break from the threat of offshore drilling in the Arctic is a good thing. No drilling operations means there will be less pollution discharged into the water, fewer emissions spewed into the air, reduced industrial noise and no risk of a catastrophic oil spill.

But real progress will only come when DOI and other federal agencies begin to fully implement the fundamental changes necessary for true Arctic conservation and find alternatives to the extraction of more fossil fuels to meet the nation’s energy needs.

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Stop Reckless Drilling: A New Year’s Resolution for Our Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/01/14/stop-reckless-drilling-a-new-years-resolution-for-our-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/01/14/stop-reckless-drilling-a-new-years-resolution-for-our-ocean/#comments Mon, 14 Jan 2013 18:28:02 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=4210

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.

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A Rocky End to 2012 for Shell’s Arctic Drillships http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/01/03/a-rocky-end-to-2012-for-shells-arctic-drillships/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/01/03/a-rocky-end-to-2012-for-shells-arctic-drillships/#comments Thu, 03 Jan 2013 15:42:39 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=4085
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.

At approximately 9pm local time on December 31, the Kulluk ran aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island. Photographs and video from the scene show waves pounding the grounded drilling unit. According to Shell, the Kulluk is carrying up to 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel, together with approximately 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. As of this writing, the hull is stable and upright, and so far there are no signs of contaminants in the water. Nevertheless, responders are staging spill response equipment to the area in the event of a spill. On January 2, an assessment team boarded the Kulluk to evaluate options for freeing the rig. But until the rig is off the rocks, we can only hope that the vessel remains intact and more serious environmental damage is avoided.

The dramatic grounding and salvage of the Kulluk overshadowed the earlier news that Shell’s other Arctic drillship—the Noble Discoverer—had significant problems of its own. The LA Times and Alaska Dispatch recently reported that the Discoverer had to be towed into port in Seward, Alaska after the drillship developed propulsion problems in November. While in port in Seward, a Coast Guard inspection revealed serious issues with safety and pollution prevention equipment. The problems were so severe that the Discoverer failed to meet federal and international requirements. The U.S. Coast Guard cited the Discoverer for the deficiencies and ordered the ship to remain in port until it was brought back into compliance with regulations. The ship’s owner, the Noble Corporation, acknowledged the problems in a press release and admitted that the Discoverer may have discharged pollutants without proper authorization. Noble claims that it corrected the most serious problems and the Coast Guard has lifted its detention order. As of this writing the Discoverer is still in Seward. According to news reports, a tug will tow the Discoverer to Seattle where the drillship will undergo additional repairs.

The grounding of the Kulluk and safety and pollution prevention problems on the Noble Discoverer come on the heels of a long string of other mishaps from last summer’s drilling operations—including the near-grounding of the Discoverer near Dutch Harbor last July and a failed test of Shell’s oil spill containment system that left Shell’s equipment “crushed like a beer can.” Shell’s track record of failure in 2012 raises serious questions about whether the company is capable of carrying out safe operations in Alaska’s challenging environments.

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