After a 60-day review of what could charitably be described as a disastrous Arctic drilling season, the Department of the Interior has released a critical assessment of Shell's offshore activities in the far north. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Tommy Beaudreau acknowledged that the company was unprepared for work in such an unforgiving environment:
“Shell simply did not maintain strong, direct oversight of some of its key contractors. Working in the Arctic requires thorough advance planning and preparation, rigorous management focus, a close watch over contractors, and reliance on experienced, specialized operators who are familiar with the uniquely challenging conditions of the Alaskan offshore. In some areas Shell performed well, but in other areas they did not, and Alaska’s harsh environment was unforgiving.”
Oceana Deputy Vice President, Pacific, Susan Murray responded to the DOI's review. While echoing the criticism of Shell, she argued that the government must reassess its own role in allowing such an unprepared organization flirt with environmental catastrophe:
“By and large, the review told us two things we already knew—companies are woefully unprepared for the remote and unforgiving Alaskan waters, and our government improperly awarded Shell approvals to operate there. The Arctic Ocean is unique and important. Americans deserve better care and stewardship than oil companies or the government have provided.
Shell’s lack of respect and lack of attention to detail repeatedly put lives and our oceans at risk; and the company has violated the most basic protections for clean air and clean water. Holding Shell accountable is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
I have some terrific news to report: Shell announced yesterday that it will suspend attempts to drill for oil in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
This announcement comes as a huge relief after Shell’s dangerous string of mishaps in the Arctic in the past year. In late December, the company’s drill rig, the Kulluk, broke away from its tow vessel in rough seas, and ran aground on New Year’s Eve off of Kodiak Island in an area that is home to endangered Steller sea lions, threatened southwest sea otters, and salmon.
Fortunately, the Coast Guard was able to rescue the crew of the Kulluk, and salvage crews were able to pull the vessel off the rocks without significant ecological harm. But the Kulluk incident capped off a year of missteps, and made it clear that Shell is not prepared to drill in the Arctic.
As Oceana’s Mike LeVine points out, “Shell currently faces two disabled vessels, two pending Coast Guard investigations, two notices of violation of the Clean Air Act, and an ongoing ‘assessment’ by the Department of the Interior. Fundamentally, both the company and the government agencies charged with making decisions about our ocean resources are faced with a crisis of confidence. The decisions to allow Shell to operate in the Arctic Ocean clearly were premature.”
This week, the civil trial began in New Orleans against BP and its partners in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. During the opening statements, an attorney for the Justice Department said, "The evidence will show that BP put profits above people, profits before safety and profits before the environment.”
The attorney’s statement could easily describe Shell’s behavior in 2012, except that the company was forced, by its own failures, to stop before real disaster struck. We are extremely lucky to have avoided catastrophe considering the unforgiving conditions in Alaskan waters and the impossibility of cleaning up a spill.
Kudos to Oceana’s team and our allies in Alaska for their persistent campaign work to achieve this victory.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
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.
If you were paying attention over the winter break you might have heard about things going very awry up North. Shell, which last fall closed the books on a disastrous season trying to drill for oil in the Arctic, ran into even more serious trouble when its drill rig, the Kulluk, separated from the vessel towing it in 24-foot waves on December 27.
The incident kicked off a harrowing four-day struggle to bring the rig, carrying 140,000 gallons of diesel, and its crew to safety. On New Years Eve, the Kulluk ran aground just off of Kodiak Island in an area that is home to endangered Steller sea lions, threatened Steller’s eiders, threatened southwest sea otters, and salmon. Luckily, after a week salvage crews were able to pull the Kulluk off the rocks, and both the loss of life and an ecological disaster were averted—but barely.
In light of Shell’s activities in Alaska in the past year, which have progressed from comical to dire, the Department of the Interior has called for a 60-day review of the past season’s experience and an evaluation of whether activities like those Shell proposes in the Arctic Ocean are something this country can afford. In his role as the chief steward of the country’s environment President Obama has the chance to stand up for this country’s natural resources and put an end to this questionable venture, one that experience has proven will do nothing to lower prices at the pump.
Shell’s latest mishap in Alaskan waters was the culmination of a series of mishaps, problems, and near-disasters. It required the heroic efforts of a fleet of salvage and rescue teams, by boat and by air, as the 266-foot drill rig went adrift in conditions that, although unforgiving, were hardly unusual for the region at this time of year. Shell’s decision to attempt to tow the rig, from Dutch Harbor, AK to Seattle in the dead of winter is just the latest reason to question Shell’s planning, preparedness, and capacity to operate in the inhospitable reaches of the far North.
Prior to the grounding of the Kulluk, the company had endured a Keystone Cops-like Arctic drilling season. If it weren’t for the risk to life and our oceans, the bumbling would almost be funny: in June Shell lost control of its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor, AK; the company later failed a test of its oil spill containment dome which was damaged in placid (un-Arctic like) conditions in Puget Sound off of Washington; Shell argued with the Coast Guard about the safety standards of its long-inactive oil spill response barge the Arctic Challenger; it admitted it could not meet Clean Air Act standards; it reneged on a commitment to have the ability to clean up 95 percent of a major Arctic oil spill; and in November, there was an explosion and fire on the Noble Discoverer which is now reportedly under criminal investigation for safety and environmental violations. And just last Thursday the EPA announced that it was issuing air pollution citations to the oil giant for "multiple permit violations" during its foray in the Arctic last summer.
As Shell is learning the hard way, Alaska’s oceans can be unforgiving. The high wind and waves, unpredictable ice floes, near constant fog and an almost complete lack of infrastructure would make an oil spill impossible to clean up. Shell’s disastrous year in the Arctic should be more than enough evidence to help the Department of the Interior reach the correct decision: oil companies are not prepared to drill in the Arctic.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
After a disastrous few weeks that saw drilling shut down in the Arctic due to unpredictable ice floes, and then the failure of its oil containment dome during testing, Shell has decided to scale back plans for drilling in the Chukchi Sea North of Alaska this season. Instead it will drill only “top holes” rather than all the way down into oil-bearing zones.
Oceana is relieved by the development which only points to the inherent difficulty, and danger, of drilling for oil in such an inhospitable environment:
“Today Shell announced yet another last minute change of plans for this summer’s drilling season due to new problems with its oil spill containment equipment,” said Oceana Senior Pacific Director Susan Murray. “Oceana is just glad this didn’t happen during a real oil spill. This series of blunders inspires anything but confidence in the oil industry’s ability to safely drill in the Arctic. Shell’s repeated backtracking, last minute requests for permit and plan changes, and their inability to successfully complete preparations has resulted in mishaps that brings to mind the keystone cops rather than a company that is prepared and ready to work safely . . . If Shell has proved one thing this summer it is that the oil industry is not ready to drill in the Arctic.”
Besides failing tests on its oil containment dome and its ability to contain an oil spill, Shell also has had trouble this summer anchoring its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, and has been unable to upgrade its oil spill recovery barge, a formerly derelict ship called the Arctic Challenger, to Coast Guard standards.
After just one day of drilling in the Arctic, ice floes forced Shell to halt its operations in the Chukchi Sea. The problems point to the inherent danger in drilling for oil in such an unforgiving landscape. While oil spills occur nearly every day in the Gulf of Mexico, high winds, waves, fog and unpredictable ice floes promise to make drilling in the Arctic even more fraught with hazard.
Following last week’s approval by the Department of the Interior, Shell began drilling its first exploration well off the coast of Northern Alaska on Sunday, but abruptly stopped on Monday as the ice closed in.
In August, Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless condemned Shell’s push into the far North.
“There is no price tag on the Arctic,” he said. “No matter how much money the company spends or how many vessels it mobilizes, Shell should not be allowed put the Arctic Ocean at risk.”
Meanwhile, Shell has been wrangling with the Coast Guard to approve an oil-spill containment barge for the site, the Arctic Challenger, a long-neglected hulk that had become Caspian Tern habitat moored off the West coast for decades.
With ice cover retreating to historic lows, Shell has been at the forefront in pushing forward with plans to exploit the Arctic. But, even in light of the BP disaster, little progress has been made in the way of offshore drilling safety, as outlined in an Oceana report issued earlier this year.
And, as that report also noted, frigid temperatures, months of continuous darkness and a lack of infrastructure in northern Alaska would make any response to an Arctic oil spill especially difficult.
This summer Shell also received a green light from the government to harass marine mammals, such as bowhead whales and walrus, as it pushed forward with the disruptive activity that inevitably accompanies oil exploration, such as noise, air and water pollution from ice-breaking and drill ships.
You’ve probably heard that Shell is planning to drill in Arctic waters. But now the plot thickens: In a bizarre move, Shell has decided to preemptively sue a group of environmental groups, including Oceana, to attempt to silence our voices and remove our right to challenge their spill response plan.
Naturally environmentalists have been fighting against Shell’s plan — the Arctic is a fragile environment, and an oil spill there would be a tragedy for Arctic communities, seals, polar bears, and more. Even the US Coast Guard has said they don’t have the resources to deal with an Arctic spill.
Oceana has been campaigning to prevent unsafe drilling in the Arctic, along with many other environmental groups. Greenpeace made the news recently for protesting aboard an Arctic bound oil-drilling ship with actress Lucy Lawless.
The truth is, there is no known technology to clean up spilled oil in icy Arctic ocean conditions. Shell does not have some magic solution. Clean-up crews at the recent Gulf of Mexico spill were only able to recover about 10% of the spilled oil, and that was in a warm environment with relatively calm seas.
In the icy Arctic 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, clean-up efforts would be extremely difficult if not impossible. By saying otherwise, Shell is misleading the public and the government.
We’ll keep you posted as this curious lawsuit unfolds...
Yesterday Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless joined members of Congress and other clean energy advocates in urging an end to oil industry tax breaks and subsidies.
The five biggest oil companies – including Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil -- took in 70 percent more profit this quarter than they did in the same quarter in 2010, and their earnings for 2011 are projected to go up by 74 percent to $132 billion. And yet U.S. policymakers have consistently voted to continue tax breaks and subsidies for these corporations.
In other words, we are essentially paying these companies to take big risks in our oceans. What’s wrong with this picture?
As Sharpless noted, ending these tax breaks will protect vital economic programs for hard working Americans and veterans, while reducing the federal deficit. “Ending giveaways to oil companies is a no-brainer,” Sharpless said. “Oil companies should pay their fair share of taxes like the rest of us – they doggone sure have the money.”
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), one of the speakers at yesterday’s press conference, has been a longtime leader in the fight to close tax loopholes for Big Oil. Just last month, Sen. Menendez led a letter with 13 Senate colleagues to the The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, often called "the Supercommittee," urging consideration of his “Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act.” The bill calls for the elimination of more than $21 billion in oil subsidies. The bill received a majority vote in the Senate but did not pass due to a Republican filibuster.
“Isn’t it time we asked Big Oil – the folks who made $100 billion in profits so far this year – to pay their fair share?” Menendez said.
We couldn’t agree more.
The Obama Administration has proposed cutting harmful oil and gas subsidies by $4 billion per year. The President’s proposal would net over $40 billion over 10 years.
We’ll continue the fight to end these harmful subsidies and promote investment in clean energy. Thanks as always for your support and stay tuned! (In the meantime, you can check out more photos from yesterday's presser.)
Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.
This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.
These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.
The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then.
Furthermore, the Arctic is an incredibly harsh place. The Gulf of Mexico was surrounded by thousands of first-responders within a few hours’ travel, and it has year-round temperate weather. The nearest Coast Guard response facility is 1000 air miles from the Beaufort Sea. The Arctic is only a hospitable working environment for a few months in summer. Ice and weather could easily make rescue working conditions far too dangerous for crews, leaving a nearly-pristine ecosystem that is home to Inuit people destroyed during an uncapped oil spill.
We’ve won major victories against offshore drilling, especially last year when President Obama announced that the new five-year plan for offshore drilling removed thousands of miles of U.S. ocean from consideration, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
But the Interior Department’s approval of Shell’s plan shows that we still face an uphill battle, even when the facts show that increased drilling won’t reduce gas prices at the pump.
We have campaigners and scientists at work in Washington, D.C. as well as in Alaska who are closely monitoring the oil companies’ plans to drill in one of the last great ocean ecosystems. With your support, we hope to win more protections to keep our coasts safe from oil spills.