The Blog Aquatic » oil drilling http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 12 Aug 2014 18:48:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Commission releases report on Arctic oil spill research http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/12/05/commission-releases-report-on-arctic-oil-spill-research/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/12/05/commission-releases-report-on-arctic-oil-spill-research/#comments Wed, 05 Dec 2012 18:16:01 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=3762

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.

]]>
http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/12/05/commission-releases-report-on-arctic-oil-spill-research/feed/ 0
Shell’s 2012 Arctic Drilling Season Comes to a Close http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/11/05/shells-2012-arctic-drilling-season-comes-to-a-close/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/11/05/shells-2012-arctic-drilling-season-comes-to-a-close/#comments Mon, 05 Nov 2012 23:38:04 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=3441

The oil drilling ship Noble Discoverer. Credit: jkbrooks85 flickr stream

Wednesday October 31 marked the end of the drilling season in the Arctic Ocean. Shell had hoped to drill a series of exploration wells into potential oil deposits in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s coast. But things didn’t go as planned for the oil giant, and it never reached the oil it was looking for. Instead of drilling exploration wells into oil-bearing layers, Shell was able to do only preparatory work and shallow “top-hole” drilling on two Arctic wells.

The 2012 drilling season didn’t unfold the way that Shell had hoped, but we did learn a few things from the company’s efforts.

First, we learned that Shell is quick to backtrack on its environmental commitments. For example, Shell asked EPA for a waiver that would allow the company to emit more air pollution than was allowed under its original permit. Shell also backpedaled from its claim that it would be able to recover 95 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill before it reached Arctic shorelines.

Second, we learned that Shell’s operations are not immune from accidents and technical problems. In July, Shell’s drillship dragged anchor in the relatively protected waters of Unalaska Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska and nearly ran aground. And in September, portions of Shell’s oil spill containment system were damaged when equipment failed under benign conditions during a test in waters off the coast of Washington State. That failure prompted Shell to give up on drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.

Third, we learned that Shell was not as prepared as it claimed to be. Shell’s website asserts that it is “ready to deploy the most robust Arctic oil spill system known to the industry.” But it turns out that Shell’s oil spill response barge—a critical component of Shell’s spill response system—failed to meet Coast Guard requirements and had to undergo extensive renovations all summer long. The Coast Guard finally certified the barge in October, well after Shell was forced to give up on plans to drill into oil-bearing layers in 2012.

Last, we learned that mother nature always holds the trump card. Despite all of Shell’s missteps and mistakes, the Department of the Interior authorized Shell to drill into shallow layers that do not contain oil. But the day after Shell began its preliminary drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea, a huge ice floe approached the well site and forced Shell to leave the area for roughly two weeks. The Arctic is an unforgiving environment, and oil companies like Shell are not in control.

Shell is already talking about coming back to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to drill into oil-bearing layers in 2013. Given its track record in 2012, I’m skeptical that Shell is prepared for the challenge, and I have no confidence that Shell would be able to respond effectively to an oil spill in Arctic conditions.

Instead of pushing to drill in ever-more risky and remote places, we should focus on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels by incorporating more renewable energy sources into our energy mix. And as we make that transition, we should ensure that any additional conventional energy development is safe and responsible. Shell’s ongoing effort to drill in the Arctic Ocean is neither.

]]>
http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/11/05/shells-2012-arctic-drilling-season-comes-to-a-close/feed/ 2
Shell Gives Up on Arctic Oil in 2012 After Latest Failure http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/09/17/shell-gives-up-on-oil-in-2012-after-latest-failure/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/09/17/shell-gives-up-on-oil-in-2012-after-latest-failure/#comments Mon, 17 Sep 2012 20:33:46 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=2992

Credit: Photolink

Yesterday, Shell admitted what we’ve known all along: the company is just not ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

This past weekend, a failed test of Shell’s oil spill containment system resulted in damage to the dome designed to contain oil in the event of a spill. In light of the damage to the containment dome, Shell announced that it was abandoning its plans to drill into oil-bearing layers in the Arctic Ocean this summer. The company said its drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean this summer would be limited to “top holes”—initial sections of wells that do not penetrate into known oil-bearing layers.

According to one media report, trouble with the containment dome started when one of the dome’s winches failed to operate correctly. Engineers sent a subsea remotely operated vehicle to investigate the problem. The ROV tangled in the anchor lines of the containment dome, causing the dome to sink into the silt on the ocean floor. As a result of the incident, the dome suffered an undisclosed amount of damage.

The containment dome failure is just the latest in a series of setbacks that have plagued Shell throughout the summer:

• Earlier this summer, Shell changed its story about its ability to clean up oil spilled in the Arctic Ocean. Portions of Shell’s oil spill response plan assume Shell would be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill in the Arctic—even though actual recovery rates rarely exceed 20 percent even in the best of conditions. In the face of questions about its capacity to recover spilled oil, the company backpedaled, saying that it would only “encounter” 90 percent of spilled oil.

Credit: Damian Gadal flickr stream

• Around the same time it was changing its story about oil spill recovery, Shell admitted that one of its drillships—the Noble Discoverer—would not be able to meet air pollution standards set forth in EPA permits. The oil company was forced to seek a waiver from EPA to allow the drillship to emit additional pollution. EPA granted Shell’s request for a waiver a few weeks ago.

• In July, the Noble Discoverer nearly ran aground in relatively protected waters near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The incident raised questions about Shell’s ability to operate safely in more challenging conditions further north.

• All summer long, Shell has had trouble obtaining Coast Guard certification for its oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger. Unable to meet the original safety requirements, Shell sought—and received—permission to have the barge evaluated under less stringent standards. Even then, it took all summer for Shell to renovate the barge, and the Arctic Challenger was not able to leave the dock for sea trials until well into September.

• The day after Shell began initial drilling the pilot hole for a long-delayed exploration well in the Chukchi Sea, a huge ice floe drifted toward the well site. The presence of the ice—which measured roughly 30 miles long by 12 miles wide—forced Shell to stop drilling operations, disconnect the drillship from its anchors, and pull away form the well site. At this writing, Shell is still waiting for the ice to clear the area.

Viewed in the context of all these shifts, missteps and setbacks, it should come as no surprise that this past weekend’s test of Shell’s containment dome was a failure. Shell’s record speaks for itself: the company is just not up to the challenge of operating safely and responsibly in the Arctic environment.

]]>
http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/09/17/shell-gives-up-on-oil-in-2012-after-latest-failure/feed/ 9
Department of Interior to Shell Oil: Let’s Hope For The Best http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/30/department-of-interior-to-shell-oil-lets-hope-for-the-best/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/30/department-of-interior-to-shell-oil-lets-hope-for-the-best/#comments Thu, 30 Aug 2012 21:50:15 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=2734

Credit: Damian Gadal flickr stream

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued an interim permit that authorizes Shell Oil to begin initial drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea — part of the Arctic Ocean northwest of Alaska. The decision does not allow Shell to drill into known oil or gas-bearing layers. Even so, it is a significant step in the wrong direction.

BSEE Director James Watson claimed that today’s permit decision is consistent with the agency’s commitment to use the “highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards.”

It sure doesn’t seem that way.

If BSEE were serious about holding Shell to the highest standards, the agency would insist that no drilling take place until all of Shell’s oil spill response tools are on site and ready to respond in the event of an emergency. Instead, BSEE’s decision will allow Shell to drill roughly 1,400 feet below the ocean floor without an oil spill response barge and containment system on site.

Shell’s oil spill response barge and containment system remain in Bellingham, WA, far from the Arctic. The barge is still undergoing renovations required before the Coast Guard can certify the vessel for use in the Arctic. The containment system has not received final certification, either. When and if the Coast Guard certifies the barge and containment system, it will take roughly two weeks to get them from Bellingham to Shell’s drilling site in the Chukchi. Two weeks would be an agonizingly long time to wait if something went wrong during the initial phases of Shell’s operations.

Delays with the barge and containment system are not the only cause for concern. As I explained earlier, Shell admitted that it wouldn’t be able to comply with the terms of its original EPA air permit, and the company has backpedaled from its claim that it will be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill. If BSEE were serious about holding Shell to the highest standards, it would not allow Shell to drill unless and until Shell showed that it was prepared to comply fully with these environmental protection requirements.

To be clear, the interim permit that BSEE issued today allows only initial drilling and well preparation work.  It does not allow Shell to drill into layers that are expected to contain oil or gas. If everything goes as expected, there is relatively low risk that these initial activities would lead to a blowout or oil spill.

The trouble is things don’t always go as expected, and in a place as fragile and remote as the Arctic, the consequences of an accident could be catastrophic. Instead of requiring Shell to do everything possible to prepare for the worst, BSEE has decided to allow Shell to start Arctic drilling operations and hope for the best.

]]>
http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/30/department-of-interior-to-shell-oil-lets-hope-for-the-best/feed/ 4
Not Arctic Ready: Shell Oil Is Unprepared http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/16/not-arctic-ready-shell-oil-is-unprepared/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/16/not-arctic-ready-shell-oil-is-unprepared/#comments Thu, 16 Aug 2012 15:46:56 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=2403 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.

]]>
http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/16/not-arctic-ready-shell-oil-is-unprepared/feed/ 3