The Blog Aquatic » Shell News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Oil and Ice Still Don’t Mix in the Arctic Wed, 30 Apr 2014 15:05:36 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

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.

Knowledge gaps: baselines, data on physical and biological status, and understanding of the fate and behavior of oil under sea ice conditions are all inadequate.

The NRC report correctly notes that effective spill response and recovery requires a “fundamental understanding of the dynamic Arctic region.” Unfortunately, current knowledge of the Arctic marine environment is plagued by significant gaps. For example, the NRC found that existing data in the Arctic “do not provide reliable baselines to assess current environmental or ecosystem states” and cannot fully anticipate future impacts. It also determined that “[p]opulation sizes and trends for most U.S. Arctic marine mammals are poorly known,” and “shoreline and hydrographic data are mostly obsolete, with limited tide, current, and water level data and very little ability to get accurate positioning and elevation.” Other shortcomings? Spill trajectory models “have not been calibrated for the full range of environmental factors encountered in the Arctic” and “reliable oil spill trajectory models for oil fate and behavior under sea ice conditions have not been established.”

Infrastructure: equipment and services needed to support response teams are insufficient.

In addition to these knowledge gaps, the NRC report found that the Arctic’s lack of infrastructure “would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill.” Responders would be confronted with “a severe shortage” of basic services including “housing, fresh water, food and catering, sewage handling and garbage removal facilities, communications infrastructure, ability to handle heavy equipment, supplies, and hospitals and medical support.” Despite the U.S. Coast Guard’s best efforts, the NRC report concluded that “personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic.” In short, spill response personnel would likely be unable to react quickly to an oil spill without “improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

Arctic environment: challenging environmental conditions in the Arctic create increased risk for responders.

Environmental conditions in the Arctic present another serious problem for oil spill response. The NRC report recognized that “Arctic conditions impose many challenges for oil spill response—low temperatures and extended periods of darkness in the winter; oil that is encapsulated under ice or trapped in ridges and leads; oil spreading due to sea ice drift and surface currents; reduced effectiveness of conventional containment and recovery systems in measurable ice concentrations; and issues of life and safety of responders.”

While the NRC report is dense and detailed, its overall message is simple: “[m]arine activities in U.S. Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the logistics and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely.”

Fortunately, the NRC report contains a series of important recommendations designed to remedy some of the shortcomings that the report identified. Implementing those recommendations will take commitment, time and resources. But four years after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, those are recommendations we should not ignore.

]]> 2
Court Upholds Shell’s Spill Response Plans Despite Past Failures and Serious Questions Tue, 06 Aug 2013 18:22:18 +0000 Andrew Hartsig 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.


]]> 13
A Break from Drilling Doesn’t Mean a Break From Protecting the Arctic Thu, 16 May 2013 22:34:57 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

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.

]]> 1
When Facing Ocean Acidification it’s Location, Location, Location Thu, 07 Mar 2013 22:24:47 +0000 George Leonard

© 2013 Barbara Kinney/Ocean Conservancy All RIghts Reserved

For us landlubbers, it is obvious that place matters.  My home town in central California is a pretty different place than say, Washington DC, where I often travel to advocate on behalf of ocean conservation.  The weather is different, the food is different, and the culture – not to mention the politics – is certainly different.

It turns out that place really matters in the ocean too, especially as it relates to ocean acidification.  Never heard of ocean acidification?  Check out some of my earlier posts to learn more about the basics.  But what we learned from scientists last week is that the chemical characteristics of the ocean vary greatly from place to place, and as a result some areas may be especially sensitive to increases in carbon dioxide and other drivers of acidification.  A team of oceanographers led by Dr. Aleck Wang sampled seawater from Texas to New Hampshire and measured the total amount of carbon in the water as well as what scientists call “alkalinity.” The ratio of alkalinity to total carbon is a measure of the buffering capacity of the ocean, or in layman’s terms, the ocean’s ability to resist acidification. What the scientists found was that the Gulf of Maine is much more susceptible to acidification than the Gulf of Mexico or the southeastern coast. 

If you are a fisherman or fish farmer who makes a living from the Gulf of Maine, this is sobering news.  In fact, at last week’s Fishermen’s Forum in Rockland, Maine, our ocean acidification team heard from many in the fishing industry – lobstermen, clammers, and others – who are seeing major changes in the ocean environment and are deeply concerned.  Members of the Maine seafood industry are keen to do something to address these environmental challenges for they know their culture and livelihood depend on it.  Economically, a lot is riding on a healthy Maine coastline that will increasingly be undermined by ocean acidification and other effects of carbon on the ocean.

Other regions are rising to confront ocean acidification as well. The Pacific Northwest is under assault from rising acidity and the shellfish industry has been at the tip of the spear. Washington’s governor at the time, Christine Gregoire, established a Blue Ribbon Panel last year that recently released a series of regionally-specific recommendations on how the state can address this issue. Elected officials are now are now advancing concepts for state legislation to empower action. In part a response to Washington’s recent effort, California has now constituted an expert science panel to evaluate the extent of acidification in California’s ocean waters, identify ecological and socioeconomic research needs, and begin to identify private sector and public policy strategies to fight back.  As last week’s study by Dr. Wang shows, each region’s response needs to be grounded in a deep understanding of its local ocean.  But just as important, each regional response needs to be based upon a keen understanding of the local ocean industries and other local interests who depend on a healthy ocean.

It behooves other states to get out ahead of this impending challenge as well. Ocean acidification and the threat that carbon dioxide pose to the ocean may very well be the marine conservation challenge of our time. But all is not lost for people are now paying attention.  With a committed effort by scientists, ocean industries, private foundations, conservationists, policymakers and the general public, together we can help ensure the oceans continue to provide us with the goods and services upon which we depend, regardless of which place we call home.

]]> 3
Shell Hits Pause on Arctic Drilling. Why the Interior Department Should Too Wed, 27 Feb 2013 16:24:54 +0000 Andrew Hartsig  

Credit: Damian Gadal flickr stream

Today, after months of speculation and countless questions regarding their Arctic drilling operations, and on International Polar Bear Day, Shell announced that it would suspend its attempts at further oil exploration in the Arctic for 2013. Given Shell’s performance over the past year, their decision to pause drilling for 2013 is one of the smartest moves they’ve made regarding Arctic operations.  Shell has clearly demonstrated that the company is not prepared to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters.  We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water

This announcement came after a long season of other mishaps and missteps, followed by continuing troubles in Alaska throughout the winter. Shell’s Kulluk drilling unit ran aground near Kodiak Island in December after Shell lost control of the vessel while attempting to tow it in stormy seas. At roughly the same time, sources in the media reported that Shell’s other Arctic drillship, the Noble Discoverer, suffered a series of significant problems with propulsion, safety and pollution prevention systems.

Two weeks ago, Shell announced that it would tow both of its beleaguered Arctic drilling units to Asia for repair. As Shell prepared to tow the Kulluk, the tugboats assigned to the task wound up crashing into each other.

Shell’s failures during 2012 season demonstrate clearly that the company is not prepared to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar initiated a high-level review of Shell’s operations and activities in 2012. We’re urging that the review be transparent, objective, and comprehensive. An honest assessment of Shell’s failures and missteps will show that Shell wasn’t ready for the challenge of operating in the Arctic. And it will also show that the federal regulators who gave Shell the green light need to hold Arctic operators to a much higher standard.

The Department of the Interior plans to release its review in early March. In the meantime, let’s not allow Shell—or any other oil and gas company—to gamble with the health of the Arctic Ocean.

]]> 2
A Rocky End to 2012 for Shell’s Arctic Drillships Thu, 03 Jan 2013 15:42:39 +0000 Andrew Hartsig
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.

]]> 5
Shell’s 2012 Arctic Drilling Season Comes to a Close Mon, 05 Nov 2012 23:38:04 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

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.

]]> 2