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.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading »
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.
Did you know bowhead whales can boast some surprising statistics?
their blubber is more than a foot thick, and
their baleen—plates in the mouth that filter prey from water—can grow 15 feet long.
But one of their most eye-opening attributes is their longevity. Chemical analysis on samples from whale eyeballs the size of billiard balls revealed ages up to an estimated 211 years. Accounting for a margin of error of about 16 percent, the oldest bowhead studied could have been up to 245 years old—no other mammal is known to have lived as long.
More than 13,000 bowheads swim off Alaska’s coast, but threats are growing. Oil and gas exploration will impact bowhead habitat and increases the stresses whales face. Continue reading »
Interested in learning more? Subscribe to our RSS feed or give us your email using the simple form below and we’ll make sure you get the latest on ocean wildlife and all the important ways you can fight for a healthy ocean.