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.
Photo: Alaska Dept of Environmental Conservation Spill Prevention and Response
Forming the southern boundary of the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands archipelago stretches for more than 1,000 miles. This windswept and remote region is home to a rich diversity of fish species, birds that migrate from all seven continents, and marine mammals ranging from endangered Steller sea lions to humpback whales. Although this unique ecological area has been designated a National Maritime Wildlife Refuge and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it continues to face the impacts of oil spills and other pollution from the global shipping industry. As shipping along the Aleutian Island segment of the ‘Great Circle Route’ connecting North America and Asian markets has increased, so too has the number of catastrophic accidents and near-misses involving some of the largest vessels in the world.
On December 6, 2004, the cargo vessel Selendang Ayu, which was carrying 66,000 tons of soybeans from Seattle, Washington to Xiamen, China, experienced engine problems. The 738 foot long ship was shut down and allowed to drift while repairs were made. The ship drifted along the Aleutian chain, but the captain did not call the U.S. Coast Guard immediately. When the crew was unable to start the engine the following morning, the weather had worsened and the Selendang Ayu was dead in the water—and taking the full force of 35 mph winds and 15 foot waves. By the time the Coast Guard was alerted and rescue vessels arrived on the scene, winds were exceeding 60 mph, with waves reaching 25 feet. Despite the efforts of rescue crews, the extreme weather conditions forced the grounding of the Selendang Ayu near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Tragically, several of the ship’s crew members were killed when a helicopter crashed while attempting to rescue them. The ship eventually broke in half, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel, which is more toxic to the environment than crude oil.
On April 23, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new report that reviews state of science and technology with respect to spill response and environmental assessment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Ocean Conservancy provided recommendations and comments to the NRC as it conducted its research last year.
Now that the NRC has published its final report, we are pleased to see that it confirms what we’ve known all along: there are major barriers to effective oil spill response in Arctic waters. These include lack of information, lack of infrastructure, and lack of preparedness to deal with adverse environmental conditions.
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.
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.
Tar balls photographed by Louisiana state response teams on Elmer’s Island in Jefferson Parish on September 1, 2012. Credit: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Last week was a long one for Gulf Coast residents as we watched Hurricane Isaac waffle about where to land before settling on coastal Louisiana, causing massive flooding from storm surge in Mississippi and Louisiana and bringing businesses and communities to a grinding halt for over a week.
As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, what with hurricanes and flooding and power outages and devastation for too many people, we also had the pleasure of remembering (in case any of us had forgotten) that we are still in the grips of responding to and recovering from the BP oil disaster.
Far from magically disappearing, oil has persisted in the marine environment for over two years now, and the force of Hurricane Isaac has churned up an ugly reminder of how much work we still have to do to restore the Gulf ecosystem. Tarballs and mats are showing up from Louisiana to Alabama, even forcing the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to issue a closure for commercial fishing in the area of a large oil mat off Elmer’s Island.
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.