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.
"Do you see Integrated Arctic Management happening offshore as well as in the National Petroleum Reserve?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," he said. "The concept is that you look through a broad lens; you get away from a project-by-project process for approving opera- tions and instead get a concept of the entire landscape and seascape. Absolutely the oceans are part of that."
Under his chairmanship the work- ing group handling Alaskan energy development brought agencies that had frequently been at odds--like the Coast Guard, the EPA, and NOAA--together in coordinated management. Hayes effected unprecedented com- munication with North Slope residents and wildlife interests, and addressed international aspects of oil exploration with the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation among Arctic nations. Obama couldn't have found a manager more capable of making a horrible situation a little better.
But despite Shell's stunning incompetence and proven inability to cope with Arctic oil spills, Interior vows to proceed with lease sales. The department, states the March 8 review, "expects" that Shell will work out all its problems in time for "its next proposed drilling season."
The environmental community expects nothing of the sort. In July 2012 Shell lost control of its drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, when it broke free from its mooring in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians and nearly smashed on shore. Later a fire broke out onboard. The Coast Guard cited the damaged ship for nearly two dozen safety and pollution problems, and the U.S. Department of Justice sent criminal investigators. Their questions went unanswered. According to sources cited by CBS, Shell had provided the crew with lawyers.
Shell had boasted that it could contain 90 percent to 95 percent of spilled oil in the Arctic (the massive cleanup effort in the Gulf of Mexico contained 14 percent). But, when pressed, the company allowed that it could merely "encounter" 90 percent to 95 percent of spilled oil, as who could not? Its oil-spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, flunked Coast Guard certification because it was fire prone and had question- able wiring and piping. The dilapidated Challenger had been required to handle 100-year storms, but Shell asked the Coast Guard if a 10-year-storm capability might be okay. Sure, said the Coast Guard.
Because the Noble Discoverer was still in violation of pollution regulations, Shell asked EPA if it could drill anyway. Sure, said EPA. And since the challenged Challenger had yet to be certified and was two weeks away in Bellingham, Wash- ington, Shell asked Interior if it could drill without its capping device and other safety equipment. Sure, said Interior, but don't go down to oil-bearing layers. Then, after breaking loose from its towline, Shell's 266-foot-diameter floating drill rig, Kulluk, freshly topped off with 155,000 gallons of toxic petroleum products, fetched up on the rocks at a globally significant Important Bird Area off Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve. When Shell's super tug Aiviq had attempted to reconnect, it experienced multiple engine failures. Damage to both the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer was so severe that the vessels are being repaired in Singapore and South Korea, respectively.
In mid-January 2013 then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar revealed that he had never "felt comfortable" with Shell's drilling plans and that "it may be that Shell isn't even ready to move forward with drilling in 2013." Barely more than a month later Shell agreed, announcing that it was pulling out of the Arctic for the year.
Despite all the current uncertainty, no one in the environmental community, industry, or government doubts that oil extraction from the Arctic's continental shelf will happen. Someday Audubon and other wildlife advocacy groups may be okay with it. But they oppose it now--before the technology exists to do it safely and before oil's effects on Arctic wildlife are understood. As Shell has taught us, haste will waste not just oil but all manner of other resources that sustain and enrich America and the world.
Tell President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that Shell has proven that technology for safe offshore oil operations in the Arctic does not exist, and that until it does, drilling there isn't reasonable or prudent. For the latest on this issue, go to ak.audubon.org.
This story originally ran in the November-December 2013 issue as "Shell Game."