Shell Shows It Can’t Ensure Safe Offshore Oil Operations in the Arctic
When it came time to prove it could safely handle an offshore spill in Alaska, the oil company flunked its own test.
How can apparently sane, sober people believe that oil can safely be extracted from the floor of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas? That was the question I was asking myself in late August 2012 as Audubon Alaska's director, Nils Warnock, and I hiked the mud roads and gray beaches of America's northernmost community--Barrow, Alaska.
The airport has but one runway, and the helicopter hangar rented to the Coast Guard (for $60,000 a month) is sinking into permafrost. Neither Barrow nor Wainwright, the closest coastal village, 70 miles to the roadless west, has a dock. Large supplies are delivered to Barrow once a year from Anchorage or Seattle by a flotilla of barges that hit the beach like landing craft. Roads can't be paved because seasonal shifts in the permafrost level would buckle tar.
But this village of 4,300 is to be the staging area for offshore oil operations on 3.7 million acres of federal leases and 5.7 million acres of state leases. Six oil companies are involved, but Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell, Europe's largest, is the major player. It has already invested at least $4.5 billion for the chance to tap seabed oil reserves estimated at 26.6 billion barrels--at America's current consumption, not quite four years' worth.
The previous December the Obama administration had given Shell approval for exploration pending demonstration that it could, among other things, cap a blowout and clean a spill in ice-bound, storm-whipped waters--in other words, normal Arctic conditions. The demonstration, on a flat-calm sea in Puget Sound in September 2012, had been hugely impressive, though not in the way Shell had hoped. The capping device buckled "like a beer can," to borrow the words of onboard observer Mark Fesmire of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
By the end of 2012 a series of equally spectacular snafus had removed the last vestige of hope that Arctic oil operations wouldn't be an ecological catastrophe. It has been a comedy of errors. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. As a result, Shell had to halt operations, at least for 2013.
Wind and snow stung our faces as Warnock and I explored Barrow. Beaches were festooned with feathers from molting birds. As we looked toward the North Pole, gray whales blew and breached, and along the entire horizon short-tailed shearwaters dipped and rose in an undulating ribbon of black. Closer in, long-tailed ducks, eiders, scoters, Pacific loons, and kittiwakes bobbed over whitecaps, and glaucous gulls wheeled and shot shoreward on the same wild wind that had delayed Warnock's flight from Anchorage. All these birds and many more, plus whales, seals, and walruses, are sustained by fertile upwellings from the Barrow Canyon. Shell's leases are close to more than 15 Audubon Important Bird Areas. Birds come here to breed from all continents and all 50 states. On the dirt road to Point Barrow we encountered an array of satellite dishes (all horizontal and pointing south toward geosynchronous orbits above the equator), arches made of bowhead whale jawbones, and fields flecked with the white blooms of Arctic cotton. Eight snowy owls squatted on the tundra, sternly surveying us through half-closed yellow eyes. The Inupiat name for Barrow is Ukpiagvik--"place to hunt snowy owls." They're great eating, one fellow told me.
The point itself was a vast expanse of sand strewn with trash, puddles, and birds-- dunlins, sanderlings, western sandpipers, godwits, black- bellied plovers, and king eiders. Offshore, two supply barges plowed west from Prudhoe Bay.
While the wealth of wildlife elated me, it unnerved me as well, because the scenes of poisoned habitat and doomed birds I'd encountered during the Deepwater Horizon blowout were fresh in my mind. Devastating as that spill was, conditions for cleanup and bird survival couldn't have been better. So warm was the water in the Gulf that bacteria started eating the oil almost immediately. So warm was the air that nearly half the oil evaporated on contact. Daylight was long, seas mostly gentle. Still, most cleanup operations had to cease at nightfall and when storms or lightning occurred.
In the Arctic, conditions couldn't be worse. Oil can take decades to break down. In winter the sun doesn't cut the horizon for two months, and before freeze-up in late fall, 20-foot waves are not unusual. After freeze-up, blowout capping and cleanup are even less likely. Responding to the Deepwater Horizon spill were 9,700 vessels. In Louisiana the nearest Coast Guard strike team (trained in pollution response) was 130 miles away, in Mobile, Alabama. At Barrow the nearest strike team is 2,595 miles away, in Novato, California. In the Gulf of Mexico lightly oiled birds frequently survived. But Arctic water is so cold that an oil spot the size of a quarter could lead to lethal hypothermia.
Oiled polar bears could suffer the same fate. When Warnock and I came across a seal carcass on the beach we didn't linger, because there had been polar bear tracks that morning, and with seal-hunting opportunities diminished by melting pack ice, carrion has become a bigger part of the bears' diet--a part they would be tempted to supplement with human flesh. Polar bears were just now arriving from ice receded so far north that survivors of the brutal swim reportedly collapse exhausted, lying on the beach most of the day. Retreating ice is also forcing walruses to shore, where they are more vulnerable and therefore easily stampeded, sometimes trampling juveniles to death.