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 â€śtop holesâ€ť 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:
â€śToday Shell announced yet another last minute change of plans for this summerâ€™s drilling season due to new problems with its oil spill containment equipment,â€ť said Oceana Senior Pacific Director Susan Murray. â€śOceana is just glad this didnâ€™t happen during a real oil spill. This series of blunders inspires anything but confidence in the oil industryâ€™s ability to safely drill in the Arctic. Shellâ€™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.â€ť
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 weekâ€™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 Shellâ€™s push into the far North.
â€śThere is no price tag on the Arctic,â€ť he said. â€śNo matter how much money the company spends or how many vessels it mobilizes, Shell should not be allowed put the Arctic Ocean at risk.â€ť
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.
Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.â€™s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large â€śbloomsâ€ť of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.
Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.
The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.
Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.
Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.
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 Americaâ€™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 Oilâ€™s bottom line. A year ago people were talking about the possibility of drilling one well in the Arctic, but todayâ€™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 arenâ€™t prepared.
Wherever oil and gas exploration goes, pollution follows. It is naive to think that a spill wonâ€™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 Shellâ€™s final permits are not granted â€“ letâ€™s keep offshore drilling out of the Arctic.
Troubling news for the Arctic: This week the government decided to uphold its 2008 decision to lease parts of Alaskaâ€™s Chukchi Sea for oil and natural gas drilling.
The decision comes despite an environmental impact statement, released in August, which stated that the approval of Chukchi Sea development will harm subsistence activities, air and water quality, threatened and endangered species, wetlands, and a multitude of mammal, bird and fish species.
We are continuing to fight against unsafe Arctic drilling by filing litigation, raising grassroots support, and conducting further research into the possible effects of oil drilling and spills in the Arctic. You can help by donating now.
Another recent study, conducted by the US Geological Survey for the Department of the Interior, found serious gaps in the scientific knowledge about the possible consequences of Arctic drilling.
Dr. Chris Krenz, Arctic Project Manager for Oceana, said of the decision:
â€śIf corporate oil giants will get to make trillions of dollars from the nationâ€™s oil in the Chukchi Sea, we can afford to spend a few million dollars on science to understand how the Arctic Ocean functions and make sure development is done right.
We know the Arctic is home to such iconic species as polar bears, walrus and beluga whales. We know the bounty of the Arctic seas supports the subsistence way of life for coastal communities. Yet we know very little about how the different components of this ecosystem fit together. With receding sea ice, the Arctic is becoming more accessible.
Just because we can now reach this place doesnâ€™t mean we should develop it. The science simply is not yet there to determine if this kind of industrial activity is feasible without destroying the remote and fragile offshore Arctic.â€ť
Just over a week ago, we delivered nearly 33,000 signatures from our dedicated activists, asking the government to delay Chukchi lease sales until more detailed research can determine whether and how Arctic oil drilling can be accomplished safely.
Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. In this post, Jon reports on the dangers of ocean acidification.
Of all the threats to the planetâ€™s ocean, none may be more insidious or have longer-term impact than ocean acidification. It is also the least understood of all the potential harms.
Admittedly it is far easier to visualize plastic afloat on the surface of the Pacific or vast tracts of the Atlantic nearly devoid of fish than a chemical imbalance. But it is the change of acidity that may already be the oceanâ€™s worst enemy.
Try this for a visualization, maybe it will help: 24 million tons of carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels â€“ or the equivalent of 24 million Volkswagens â€“ are dumped into the worldâ€™s ocean every single day.
On top of destroying coral reefs (the equivalent of wiping out rain forests on land) and killing off shellfish beds including mussels and oysters, a new report out of the U.K. suggests that the so-called â€śevil twinâ€ť of global warming is responsible for some fish losing their sense of smell and hearing.