There’s no question that drilling for oil in Arctic waters is risky business. Twenty five years after the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef in 1989, causing the second largest oil spill in U.S. history, wildlife and economies in Alaska’s Prince William Sound are still recovering. And in 2012, as part of an attempt at offshore oil exploration activity in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Shell’s Kulluk oil drilling rig ran aground near Kodiak Island.
Shell and other oil companies are focused on the Arctic Ocean as a potential new frontier for energy development. Despite the lack of adequate baseline information and any proven technology for responding to a spill in icy Arctic waters, United States government regulators have repeatedly made decisions to allow leasing and exploration activities and have granted necessary approvals. The company’s push to drill and government acquiescence put at risk coastal communities and vibrant ecosystems filled with iconic animals such as bowhead whales, walrus, and polar bears.
In December of 2012, Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the Kulluk, ran aground during a winter storm. Yesterday, the U.S. Coast Guard released the results of their investigation into the incident, criticizing Shell for poor management and decision-making. In a press release, the Coast Guard states that the “most significant factor” in the grounding was “the inadequate assessment and management of risks.”
For the past five years, the oil industry has kept up a relentless campaign to drill in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean. Oil exploration and drilling would put this exceptional ecosystem at great risk from a disastrous (and inevitable) oil spill, greatly harming marine life, fish species, and coastal communities.
An ice-ridden, remote, ecologically-rich, and picturesque region of Alaska’s Arctic will remain that way, at least for 2014. On January 30, Royal Dutch Shell’s new CEO, Ben van Beurden, made the announcement that sent a wave of praise ricocheting throughout the conservation community: Shell will not pursue offshore oil drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean this year.
Shell now has the green light from the government to harass marine mammals and put them at risk of a major oil spill in the region.
The Arctic Ocean is home to an abundance of wildlife. In the spring, consistent and extensive polynyas—stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice—create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead whales, seals, and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of productivity created by summer’s constant daylight.
For millennia, this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, these animals and ecosystems are at risk. Despite the lack of basic scientific information and demonstrated ability to clean up spilled oil in Arctic conditions, our government is poised to allow companies to move forward with offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
Whales, walrus, and other species are protected by laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may permit small numbers of marine mammals to be “harassed” by industrial activities by issuing the company an “incidental harassment authorization” or “letter of authorization.”
So what, exactly, is allowed? According to the government, Shell’s plans will result in “Level B” harassment,” which means the activities have:
the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.
According to the government documents, Shell’s drilling activities would result in harassment of thousands of marine mammals such as whales and seals.
Of course, it is difficult to evaluate these numbers, or what they might mean for these populations because we are missing basic information, such as good estimates of the numbers of seals and walrus. A fuller understanding of the food web, ocean conditions, and changes due to warming would allow us to better understand the impacts of this harassment and Shell’s proposals more broadly.
A is drawing attention to the impact that Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling program will have on marine mammals, but this is no joke. For its part, Shell continues to push aggressively to drill this summer even as it backtracks on commitments to protect clean air, argues with the Coast Guard about how strong its response barge must be, and loses control of its drill ship.
Every day brings Shell a little closer to drilling in Arctic waters, home to seals, whales, and polar bears.
With that drilling comes the risk of an oil spill, which could be devastating to the ocean ecosystem and those dependent on it. But it’s not too late—there is still a chance for President Obama to turn Shell’s boats around and insist on good science and demonstrated response technology.
Drilling in the Arctic isn’t like drilling anywhere else. Stormy seas, freezing temperatures, and a lack of infrastructure create a dangerous and possibly deadly trifecta. If an accident occurs, it would be impossible to clean up the spilled oil and keep the water safe for the whales and seals who live there.
Oceana and its partners gathered more than one million signatures seeking good decisions about our Arctic Ocean resources. These signatures are being delivered to the White House today asking President Obama to turn Shell’s ships around and keep the Arctic safe.
But there is still more to do. Today, we’re asking you to call the White House and ask President Obama to stop Shell until we have the science and response capacity needed to make good decisions. We’ve made it easy for you—you can just dial 202-456-1111, or check out our handy form with talking points here. And then let us know how it goes!
In the past 60 days Shell Oil, the global oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands, has received two permits from the U.S. government approving their Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea spill response plans. This is shocking because neither of the plans use technology that has ever been successfully tested in America’s Arctic waters.
Drilling could begin as soon as July 1 -- a blatant sign that the Administration is going after a quick political fix that places the public trust behind Big Oil’s bottom line. A year ago people were talking about the possibility of drilling one well in the Arctic, but today’s approval will make it possible for Shell to drill up to ten wells, four in the Beaufort Sea and six in the Chukchi.
Oceana encourages the Administration to follow a path of attaining and relying on good science, being prepared for a worst case accident, and having a full and fair public dialogue.
Currently in the North Sea there is a leaking rig that could spark a massive explosion. This latest North Sea disaster is a crystal ball showing us the future in the Arctic. There has never been exploration, development, or transport of oil in the offshore U.S. without a major accident eventually occurring as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the Santa Barbara pipe rupture, and the Exxon Valdez tanker wreck.
The last public U.S. Arctic in-the-water spill response tests were a failure so why is the U.S. government and Shell assuming their untested spill plans will work? Just look at the most recent failed test and you can see they aren’t prepared.
Wherever oil and gas exploration goes, pollution follows. It is naive to think that a spill won’t happen in the Arctic. And we have the rare opportunity to do thoughtful management and planning in the Arctic.
There is simply not enough science information or infrastructure in the Arctic to make any kind of claim that offshore drilling could be done without harming this pristine place.
You can help: Tell President Obama to make sure Shell’s final permits are not granted – let’s keep offshore drilling out of the Arctic.
In a huge triumph for the U.S. Arctic today, Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Peter Voser announced that Shell's 2011 plans to drill exploratory wells offshore in Alaska are canceled due to continued uncertainty over whether it would receive federal permits.
Shell had hoped to drill exploratory wells in 2010 in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, but its plans were put on hold by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Susan Murray, Oceana’s Pacific Director, said of the announcement, “We hope this decision by Shell will also bring a commitment from them and others in the oil industry to fully review the mistakes that led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout with local communities, the public and the government. We need a truly open discussion about how to determine if we should move forward with oil and gas activities in the Arctic, and if so, when, where and how.”
Oceana has been instrumental in monitoring the permitting process and holding policymakers accountable for upholding the law. The slew of faulty environmental analyses and permit applications make it clear that we are not ready to move forward with oil and gas activities in the Arctic, especially in light of last summer’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.