The Blog Aquatic » Kulluk http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:21:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Coast Guard Report Shows Shell Failed to Recognize Risk in the Arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/04/coast-guard-report-shows-shell-failed-to-recognize-risk-in-the-arctic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/04/coast-guard-report-shows-shell-failed-to-recognize-risk-in-the-arctic/#comments Fri, 04 Apr 2014 19:46:47 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8002

Photo: Coast Guard

This past Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report on its investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk near Kodiak, Alaska on December 31, 2012. A tug lost control of the Kulluk in heavy weather on the way to Seattle after Shell’s failed attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.

The Coast Guard report provides a detailed account of the events before the Kulluk ran aground and identifies a number of causal factors, including lack of experience in Alaska waters, failure to recognize risks, use of inadequate equipment, insufficient planning and preparedness and major problems with the primary towing vessel.

Were there other factors at play? Shell was in a hurry to get its oil rig out of Alaska waters before the end of the year to avoid the possibility a paying taxes to the State of Alaska if the rig remained in Alaska on January 1. The Coast Guard report also found evidence to suggest that Shell’s contractors may have failed to comply with certain legal or regulatory standards and may have committed acts of negligence.

According to the Coast Guard report, Shell’s contractors knew that conditions would be challenging. In an email, the tug’s master wrote: “To be blunt I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing guarantees an ass kicking.”

Despite these concerns, the towing operation continued. Trouble started when the Kulluk’s towline gave way on December 27. As the situation grew more dangerous, the Coast Guard rescued the 18-member crew of the Kulluk. Although Shell and the Coast Guard made multiple attempts to regain control of the Kulluk, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Late in the day on December 31, the drilling rig ran aground on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, salvage crews were able to pluck the Kulluk off the shore on January 6 and tow it to a safe harbor. Thankfully, there was no loss of life or major injuries, and the environmental damage was relatively minimal.

How did this happen? Why was one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies unable to carry out a routine towing operation safely? The Coast Guard’s investigation cites a number of causal factors, including:

Lack of experience in Alaska waters: Shell’s contractors lacked experience in the Gulf of Alaska waters, especially in the wintertime. This inexperience manifested as an inability to reduce stress on the towline in an effective manner.

Failure to recognize risk: Shell and its contractors “did not recognize the overall risks involved prior to commencement of the tow,” and did not conduct a formal risk assessment.

Inadequate equipment: Shell and its contractors selected and used towing equipment that was not sufficient for the rough conditions that they encountered.

Insufficient planning and preparedness: Shell’s towing plans “were not adequate for the winter towing operation across the Gulf of Alaska,” and were “not adequately reviewed,” and “lacked proper contingency planning.”

Problems with the primary towing vessel: Shell relied on the Aiviq—a purpose-built tug—as its primary towing vessel. But, according to the Coast Guard report, the Aiviq was plagued by design flaws and suffered from preexisting engine problems.

As I’ve written before, we need to make meaningful changes in the way that government agencies plan for and manage oil and gas operations in the Arctic. Fortunately, we’re starting to see some progress on that front.

Unfortunately, there’s bad news, too: the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is considering selling another round of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea—a move in exactly the wrong direction, especially after a court recently found fault with the agency’s analysis of its last lease sale. Join me in telling the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to call a halt to this potential Chukchi Sea lease sale. Please sign our petition today

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Shell CEO Says No Arctic Drilling in 2014 http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/01/31/shell-ceo-says-no-arctic-drilling-in-2014/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/01/31/shell-ceo-says-no-arctic-drilling-in-2014/#comments Fri, 31 Jan 2014 17:48:59 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=7441

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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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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Court Upholds Shell’s Spill Response Plans Despite Past Failures and Serious Questions http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/08/06/court-upholds-shells-spill-response-plans-despite-past-failures-and-serious-questions/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/08/06/court-upholds-shells-spill-response-plans-despite-past-failures-and-serious-questions/#comments Tue, 06 Aug 2013 18:22:18 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6475 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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