The Beacon

Blog Tags: Offshore Drilling

Ice Floes Freeze Arctic Drilling

The Arctic Sea is a forbidding place to drill for oil ©Wikimedia Commons

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.


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Shell Gets Green Light to Harass Marine Mammals

Bowhead whales would be affected by Shell's drilling. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

humorous website 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. 


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If You Were President...

OH_president

We asked our Ocean Heroes finalists: If you were elected President, what would be the first thing on your agenda?

They gave us some pretty great answers, check them out below, and don’t forget to vote for your favorite finalist! Who knows, maybe one of our finalists will be running for President themselves someday.

Adults

Michele Hunter Stop the killing of all marine mammals throughout the entire world.

Hardy Jones Expose levels of pollution.

Kristofor Lofgren I would change our energy policy, because reducing carbon and oil and gas spills, creates a healthier and less acidic ocean.

Dave Rauschkolb End offshore oil drilling.

Rick Steiner An emergency effort in clean, sustainable energy, and energy conservation, to stop climate change and its devastating impacts on marine ecosystems.

Don Voss Appoint Sylvia Earle Secretary of World's Oceans and give her free reins to establish regulations as needed.

Juniors

Sara Brenes Ban all shark finning in US, no shark products to be sold, imported or exported, create an ocean world conservation summit to try and make a plan to end shark finning, whaling and overfishing and try to create peaceful and safe ocean pact.

The Calvineers Reinforce the Endangered Species Act, especially the Marine Mammal Act so that NOAA would be better funded and more efficient at protecting marine mammals from human made dangers.

Sam Harris No killing sharks on this earth ever!!!!

James Hemphill Ban the chemical BPA from plastics to reduce the human input of toxins in the ocean.

Teakahla WhiteCloud I would ban all long-line fishing and trawler fishing and make sure all ocean laws are strictly enforced and make all reef systems National Parks.

Only a few more days of voting are left, tell us your favorite finalists today at oceana.org/heroes!

Photo Credits (clockwise from top left): Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Oceana/Maria Jose Cortex, Oceana/Carlos Suarez, Kip Evans Photography, Oceana/Carlos Suarez, Oceana/Carlos Suarez, Oceana/LX, Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Oceana/LX, Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Oceana/Enrique Talledo.


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Peru Dolphin Deaths Show What Seismic Testing Might Do

© Reuters

What will happen to marine life if the government allows seismic testing, using loud airgun blasts, to search for oil and gas deep beneath the seabed along the U.S. Atlantic coast in the next few years?

The answer may be foreshadowed by the scene in Peru, where earlier this year, hundreds of dolphin carcasses washed ashore along an 85-mile stretch of beach. While the science is not definitive, one expert, Dr. Yaipan-Llanos who has been investigating the cause of the dead dolphins and has conducted 30 necropsies, claims to have seen physiological impacts that resemble what would be expected from seismic testing for oil and gas.

Dr. Yaipan-Llanos found bubbles in the organs and tissues of the dolphin carcasses. These harmful bubbles may have been caused by the disruptive impacts of an intense sound source dislodging bubbles inside the animals or the rapid ascent of the animals toward the surface after being scared.

Alternatively, some have suggested that they could be caused by the natural breakdown of the animal’s body on the beach after death. However, the freshness of some of the carcasses sampled may rule out that theory. Another alarming finding is that the middle ears of 30 of the dolphins had fractures, an injury which could be caused by airgun blasts.  

Peruvian government officials have denied that the deaths are due to seismic testing for oil and gas or any other human-related causes, but their methodologies are being questioned by Peruvian scientists. Only two autopsies were conducted by government officials, and those dolphin carcasses were collected late in the process, making the cause of death difficult to identify.

What we do know is that seismic equipment was tested between 50 and 80 miles offshore of Peru from January 31st through February 7th and seismic surveys were conducted offshore between February 7th and April 8th.  Dr. Yaipan-Llanos first noticed the carcasses on February 7th and he collected his first samples on February 12th. Carcasses then continued to appear through mid-April. The Peruvian government report ruled out viruses, bacterial infections, pesticides or heavy metals and says that it did not find signs of trauma that would indicate seismic tests or human-related causes. But the report did not identify any cause or causes of the deaths, which remain a mystery.

This incident in Peru is unresolved, and may remain that way, but this unfortunate turn of events gives us a picture of what a mass mortality event in the U.S. could look like if seismic surveying moves forward on the Atlantic coast. Given the impacts on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizion oil spill, it would be a shame to further threaten even more dolphins with unnecessary air gun use.

Can you imagine the headline “Hundreds of Dolphin Deaths in Atlantic May be Linked to Airgun Blasts from Seismic Testing for Oil and Gas”?

The U.S. government actually predicts that over the next eight years, 138,000 marine mammal injuries would occur from seismic testing using airguns on the Atlantic coast. Vital activities in marine mammals like feeding, calving, and breeding would be disrupted 13.5 million times. Airguns would also threaten valuable East coast fisheries, marine tourism and endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale and loggerhead sea turtle.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is currently looking into the Peruvian mass mortality of dolphins, and at the same time they are also reviewing a decision about whether to allow seismic testing for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast from Florida to Delaware. The comment period for this decision ends soon, but you can still tell BOEM to protect whales and dolphins from destructive airgun blasts: submit your comments before Monday July 2!


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It’s a Fact: Domestic Drilling Doesn’t Affect Gas Prices

Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Soledad Esnaola

Two newly released reports shed some much-needed light onto a crucial question in Washington: Does domestic oil drilling affect gasoline prices?

That question lies at the heart of the debate over what we should do about high and volatile gasoline prices. Advocates for oil drilling call for broader and quicker access to our nation’s resources in order to provide relief at the pump – calls that the House has happily obliged by passing bills that would open up new areas to offshore drilling and undercut government oversight. Environmental groups and other opponents of domestic drilling, on the other hand, argue that this is the wrong approach, and that we should instead be investing in fuel efficient vehicles and alternate modes of transportation.

The two new reports provide much-needed objective and nonpartisan analyses of this crucial question, and come to the same, clear conclusion: providing relief at the pump to U.S. consumers can only be achieved through reducing our oil consumption, NOT through more domestic drilling.

The reports were issued by the Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC), a nonpartisan project of Securing America’s Future Energy that’s composed of industry CEOs and retired four-star generals and admirals, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which provides nonpartisan economic analysis to Congress.  They join a growing list of impartial publications that refute the notion that the United States can drill its way to energy independence and free ourselves from the myriad problems associated with our oil consumption and offshore drilling.


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Tell Obama: Turn Shell's Ships Around

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!


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Government Fails on Offshore Drilling Report Card

Friday will mark two years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst accidental oil spill in history. One would hope that an accident like this would lead to monumental changes in safety regulations, but sadly that is not the case.

Today, we released a report card that grades the failures of the United States government and the oil and gas industry after the oil spill.

“Politics continues to triumph over common sense. It’s outrageous that so little progress has been made to make offshore drilling safer,” said Jacqueline Savitz, our senior campaign director. “It appears that the government has done little more than require actions that were already being done voluntarily, even on the ill-fated rig – it’s as if they are letting the industry regulate itself.”

We gave the grades based on how well the government and industry followed recommendations they were given after the spill. They received “F” grades in most of the categories, but in three instances the government did make small but ultimately unsatisfactory efforts, earning “D” grades.

Overall, “both industry and government get ‘F’s’,” Savitz said. “Without stronger regulations, and better inspection and enforcement, oil companies will continue to put profits over safety and there will be more problems. It’s not a matter of whether there will be another oil spill, but when.”

For more information about Oceana’s campaign to stop new offshore drilling, please visit www.stopthedrill.org.


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Outrage Against Drilling in Canary Islands

A popular tourist beach in the Canary Islands that would be affected by drilling. © Lauren Linzer

Editor's note: This is a guest contribution by Oceana supporter Lauren Linzer, who lives on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, which are just off the west coast of Africa. 

Along with many other nations around the world, Spain has been desperately searching for solutions to relieve the increasing financial woes the country is facing. 

With a significant portion of its oil supply being imported and oil prices skyrocketing, attention to cutting down on this lofty expense has turned toward a tempting opportunity to drill for oil offshore in their own territory. 

The large Spanish petrol firm, REPSOL, has declared an interest in surveying underwater land dangerously close to the Spanish Canary Islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. This would, in theory, cut down significantly on spending for the struggling country, providing a desperately needed financial boost.

But are the grave ecological repercussions worth the investment?  There is much debate around the world about this controversial subject; but on the island of Lanzarote, it is clear that this will not be a welcome move.

Last week, protesters from around the island gathered in the capital city of Arrecife to demonstrate their opposition to the exploration for underwater oil.  With their faces painted black and picket signs in hand, an estimated 22,000 people (almost one fifth of the island’s population) walked from one side of the city to the other, chanting passionately and marching to the beat of drums that lead the pack.  Late into the night, locals of all ages and occupations joined together to express their dire concerns. 

Besides the massive eyesore that the site of the drilling will introduce off the east coast, the ripple effects to islanders will have a devastating impact.  The most obvious industry that will take a serious hit will be tourism, which the island depends on heavily.  Most of the large touristic destinations are on the eastern shore due to the year-round excellent weather and plethora of picturesque beaches.  But with the introduction of REPSOL’s towers a mere 23 kilometers (14 miles) from the island’s most populated beaches, the natural purity and ambient tranquility that draws so many European travelers will be a thing of the past. 


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Arctic Drilling Could Start as Early as July

The Beaufort Sea. [Image credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.]

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.


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Deep-sea Coral Sickness Linked to Gulf Oil Spill

Deep-sea corals. © NOAA

Even more sad news from the Gulf of Mexico, but this time it runs a mile deep. A new study confirms that the oil that likely caused deepwater coral sickness indeed came from the largest accidental oil spill in history, the Deepwater Horizon.

Back in June 2010, deep-sea coral communities showed signs of severe stress and tissue damage after being covered with heavy mucous and brown flocculent material which was believed to be caused by the spill. This type of ill-health in deep sea corals had never before been documented during deep sea research.

The lead author, Helen White from Haverford College, stated, “We would not expect deep-water corals to be impacted from a typical oil spill, but the sheer magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its release at depth makes it very different than a tanker running aground and spilling its contents.” 

Deepwater corals can live hundreds of years, and they serve as hot beds for marine biodiversity. The deepwater coral communities are habitat for crabs, shrimp, brittlestars and commercially important fish species like red snapper and grouper. These corals can take a long time to recover from damage and in comparison this would be similar to clear cutting patches of ancient redwood forests in California. 

These results are startling in that they show for the first time how harmful deepwater oil drilling is to distant ecosystems even though they are separated from humans by more than 4,000 feet of water. These ancient deepwater corals were likely  already living long before the first oil rigs entered the Gulf of Mexico. If we protect them from more drilling and more spilling they could thrive in a world that moves away from oil to smarter and safer sources of energy, like offshore wind.

Oceana is doing its part by filing a legal challenge against new lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico. We do not believe that the government has adequately studied the potential impacts of new drilling or the true extent of the biological impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These include the deepwater corals and so many other species that live in the Gulf.

It is also clear that safety measures have not improved to an adequate level. We need your support to continue our efforts to stop offshore drilling and protect important deep sea habitats, dolphins and the thousands of species that are still struggling from oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Go to stopthedrill.org to get involved.


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