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.
This week, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Economist’s Arctic Summit, held in London. The summit brought leaders from the oil and gas, shipping, and mining industries together with world leaders, academics, and others to talk about various aspects of development in the Arctic region.
Yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell delivered an address to the National Press Club in which she focused on the Obama administration’s “conservation agenda.” Rightfully, she talked about what sort of “conservation legacy” the administration seeks to leave for this and future generations. We were heartened to hear about her commitments to good stewardship of our public lands and waters, outdoor education, and renewable resources.
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.