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.
Almost everyone I met in Wainwright was clueless about the realities of offshore oil extraction. Several days earlier, Shell's Slaiby had been feted and prayed for at a dinner at which he raffled off jackets emblazoned with the Shell logo. All the drilling noise might be a good thing, one hunter explained to me. "It might scare the bowheads closer to shore." Another dismissed possible harm from spills because "the wells would be too far out." Whaling captain and Wainwright Public Works official John Hopson lamented all the "yahoos and tree huggers" worried about the coming oil bonanza. "Gas costs $7 a gallon," he said. "I can't afford to go hunting anymore, so they might as well kill all the animals. In the cold water the oil will just sink. And they can burn it like they did in the Gulf of Mexico. You don't hear those guys complaining anymore. Stop interfering with our lifestyle. You Audubon people are hurting us by suing Interior [for approving Shell's oil-spill response plan]. You should be suing them for the wars. That kills people, not just animals. The Endangered Species Act is a load of crap. You tree huggers want to hug trees, go hug them in Boston. Why don't you learn about us before you spout all this stuff."
"Why do you think I journeyed from Boston to Wainwright?" I inquired, but didn't get an answer.
On the flight back to Barrow, dropping clouds forced us low,so I got a fine look at the National Petroleum Reserve--at 22.8 million acres the largest federal land management unit in America, habitat for caribou, musk oxen, Arctic foxes, wolves, wolver- ines, grizzly bears, and polar bears, and probably the most productive wetland complex in the circumpolar Arctic. Ponds, marshes, and streams shimmered across tundra that glowed pink, brown, yellow, and purple in the muted light.
We flew over the reserve's Peard Bay and its adjacent ponds strewn across perma- frost--a continentally signifi- cant Important Bird Area with nesting habitat for shorebirds, Arctic terns, Pacific loons, long-tailed ducks, Sabine's gulls, greater white-fronted geese, and such Audubon WatchList species as yellow- billed loons, red-throated loons, spectacled eiders, king eiders, and Pacific black brant. The shoreline provides denning and feeding habitat for polar bears and haul-out sites for walruses along with spotted, ringed, and bearded seals. Streams collected by Peard Bay sustain pink and chum salmon. Peard Bay is just one of dozens of important Arctic wildlife sanctuaries threatened by offshore and onshore oil operations. The danger zone stretches from Kasegaluk Lagoon, west of Wainwright, to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of Barrow--the habitat George W. Bush's Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, dismissed as "flat, white nothingness."
In their condemnation of Obama, environmentalists would do well to keep in mind Norton's statement--a precise encapsulation of the George W. Bush administration's approach to Arctic oil extraction. Basically, the Bush administra- tion said: Here's what we own, take what you want--anywhere. After all, according to its chief land manager, there was nothing to protect.
The Obama administration has taken a different approach. In February 2013 then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar finalized a plan rendering 13.35 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve's most scenic, histori- cally significant, and ecological- ly important areas--like Peard Bay, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area--if not safe from spills, at least off-limits to oil leasing.
"Overall, this plan provides a responsible balance that protects about half of the nearly 23-million-acre Reserve while still allowing for the vast majority of the area's oil to be accessed and developed," reports Audubon Alaska, which has never opposed responsible onshore oil development in the Arctic. It does, however, oppose offshore operations. "Until the industry can dem- onstrate that it can contain an oil spill, we think that drilling is not appropriate," says policy director Jim Adams. "Still, drilling is going to happen, so we'll be proposing critical areas that should be avoided."
Deputy secretary David Hayes, second in command at Interior until he left in late June 2013, was one of the few Obama officials who understood wildlife and had the president's ear. Hayes was the architect of "Integrated Arctic Management," a plan to coordinate the work of regulatory agencies and invested interests. Before his appointment in May 2009, he'd been an accomplished environmental attorney and activist, serving with me on the board of American Rivers, where he represented us pro bono in lengthy litigation against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its destruction of fish and wildlife on the Missouri River.
So much did he impress us with his commitment to the cause of healthy, free-flowing rivers that we made him our vice chair, thereby placing him next in line for chairmanship.
I put this question to Hayes before he stepped down: "In light of all Shell's disasters, has Interior rethought the company's ability to safely extract offshore oil in the Arctic?"
"We do have concerns," he replied. "We're about to announce a high-level review of the 2012 drilling season to see if there are some systemic issues we should be looking at." That review, completed on March 8, 2013, severely chastises Shell for not being "fully prepared in terms of fabricating and testing certain critical systems" and proceeding without "adequate preparation." And it suggests a bunch of "affirmative showings before [Shell] is allowed to resume its drilling program," such as submitting "a comprehensive, integrated plan," formulating a spill response, and setting up and completing third-party safety and environmental audits.