The Beacon

CEO Note: Shell's Arctic Gamble

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

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


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