The Beacon

Americans Deserve Better in the Arctic Ocean

Coast Guard helicopter hoists crew members from the Kulluk. Photo: Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis

Alaskan waters can be harsh and unforgiving. Operating here requires careful planning, attention to detail, and, most of all, respect. Unfortunately, we have watched as Shell has learned these lessons again and again over the past year.

Most dramatically, of course, Shell lost control of its drill rig, the Kulluk, in heavy, but not unexpected, weather in the Gulf of Alaska as it tried to tow the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for repairs. After a four-day struggle that involved Shell vessels and the Coast Guard, the Kulluk ran aground near Kodiak, Alaska. Only a truly courageous and remarkable rescue effort by Coast Guard personnel in bad weather saved the 18 crew on board the Kulluk. The Kulluk stayed aground for a week before being towed to nearby Kiliuda Bay, where it remains anchored undergoing assessment. We were very lucky to avoid substantial harm to Alaska’s sensitive marine areas—the Kulluk was carrying more than 140,000 gallons of fuel, and it ran aground amid important habitat for endangered Steller sea lions, threatened sea otters, sea birds, salmon, and other important fish species. 

Shell should have known that a storm like the one it encountered was overwhelmingly likely at that time of year and yet the company still chose to leave Dutch Harbor using a tow vessel that may never have been tested in Alaskan waters and that was operated by a company from Louisiana. It has been reported that Shell made that choice to leave Dutch Harbor when it did in order to avoid paying $6 million in state taxes. It’s hard to imagine that our oceans are worth less than $6 million.

This near-disaster, of course, was the culmination of a series of mishaps and problems caused by Shell’s willingness to cut corners. The Noble Discoverer dragged anchor in Dutch Harbor in July, nearly grounding; Shell violated Clean Air Act permit conditions it had already successfully lobbied to have watered down from standards to which it had agreed earlier; Shell’s oil spill containment dome failed miserably in tests in calm conditions in Puget Sound, “breaching like a whale,” and ending up “crushed like a beer can,” according to correspondence from government officials; at the end of the drill season in the Beaufort Sea, the company could not remove workers from the Kulluk as scheduled because de-icing equipment was not available on the shore side helicopters; and the Noble Discoverer remains stranded in Seward unable to propel itself to Seattle for repair and, apparently, having been under criminal investigation for violating discharge and safety requirements. 

Wow. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the company.

Well, what about the government entities that permitted these activities? The Department of the Interior (DOI) has begun a 60-day review of the past year’s drilling season in the Arctic Ocean, and we applaud that step in the right direction. However, DOI granted many of the permits that allowed Shell to operate in the Arctic, has defended those decisions publicly and in court, and has restated its commitment to exploring for oil in Arctic waters in the future. We are hopeful, but skeptical, that this review will result in meaningful change. We need a full, fair, and transparent review of the standards and oversight applied to Arctic Ocean drilling. Such an investigation should include not only DOI and Coast Guard, but also NOAA and other agencies and should not be completed on an expedited schedule. The government should do this right, not just quickly.

Shell is beholden to its shareholders, and it is understandable, though disappointing, that the corporation would make choices that prioritize short-term economic benefits over the long-term health of our oceans. The grounding of the Kulluk is just another reason we have laws that protect our oceans. It’s time for our government officials—who are charged with protecting our interests—to enforce those requirements and send Shell home.

Michael Levine is the senior counsel at Oceana's Pacific office in Juneau, Alaska


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