After a 60-day review of what could charitably be described as a disastrous Arctic drilling season, the Department of the Interior has released a critical assessment of Shell's offshore activities in the far north. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Tommy Beaudreau acknowledged that the company was unprepared for work in such an unforgiving environment:
“Shell simply did not maintain strong, direct oversight of some of its key contractors. Working in the Arctic requires thorough advance planning and preparation, rigorous management focus, a close watch over contractors, and reliance on experienced, specialized operators who are familiar with the uniquely challenging conditions of the Alaskan offshore. In some areas Shell performed well, but in other areas they did not, and Alaska’s harsh environment was unforgiving.”
Oceana Deputy Vice President, Pacific, Susan Murray responded to the DOI's review. While echoing the criticism of Shell, she argued that the government must reassess its own role in allowing such an unprepared organization flirt with environmental catastrophe:
“By and large, the review told us two things we already knew—companies are woefully unprepared for the remote and unforgiving Alaskan waters, and our government improperly awarded Shell approvals to operate there. The Arctic Ocean is unique and important. Americans deserve better care and stewardship than oil companies or the government have provided.
Shell’s lack of respect and lack of attention to detail repeatedly put lives and our oceans at risk; and the company has violated the most basic protections for clean air and clean water. Holding Shell accountable is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
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.
Today Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless wrote an op-ed in USA Today, "A Deaf Whale is a Dead Whale", about seismic airgun testing. As you may know by now, the Department of the Interior is currently reviewing a proposal to search for oil and gas deposits in a huge expanse of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Delaware to Florida, using seismic airgun arrays.
Andy explains the brutal physics of the operation, which, if approved could wreak havoc on the ocean ecosystem, injuring an estimated 138,500 whales and dolphins:
In seismic airgun testing, a ship tows a seismic airgun, which shoots extremely loud blasts of compressed air through the ocean and miles under the seafloor to help locate oil and gas deposits. These airguns must be incredibly powerful in order to penetrate the water and the earth's crust and then bounce all the way back up to the surface. In fact, the sound generated by seismic airguns is 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine.
All this, he says, while alternatives remain untapped that are both enviromentally and economically more sound (no pun intended).
Using seismic airguns to explore for oil and gas is a destructive step in the wrong direction for ocean-based energy. It is bad for whales and dolphins, fisheries and our economy. We have much better options for energy development in the Atlantic Ocean such as offshore wind, which could supply well over 50% of the East Coast with reliable, clean electricity. Additionally, offshore wind exploration is much less damaging than exploration for oil, and its development will create three times more jobs and power 26 million more homes.
Help Oceana fight this proposal. Add your photo to our facebook petition and spread the word.
Sometime early next year the Department of the Interior will decide whether to approve seismic airgun testing to search for oil and gas deposits in a wide swath of ocean, from Delaware to Florida. If the Department goes ahead with the proposal, by their own conservative estimates, 138,500 whales and dolphins will be injured as a result.
Seismic airguns arrays work by discharging compressed air with dynamite-like intensity into the water column at 10 second intervals around the clock, for weeks on end. For marine mammals nearby the sound is literally deafening—and for animals that crucially rely on sound to navigate, find food and communicate, going deaf is tantamount to a death sentence.
But seismic airgun testing won’t only be detrimental to those below the water. The huge expanse of ocean where testing will take place is already home to a $12 billion fishing industry that employs 200,000 men and women. These fishermen are scared, and with good reason. Cod and haddock fisheries have seen catch plummet 40 to 80 percent after the use of a single airgun array and fishermen in Norway have had to seek compensation for a drop in catch in the wake of testing.
“It's a disaster waiting to happen,” said actress, environmentalist and Oceana donor Victoria Principal. Principal is supporting Oceana’s efforts to prevent seismic testing in the Atlantic, including the launch, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, of a brand new Facebook application, where you can add your photo to sign our petition to the Department of the Interior.
As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck recently told the New York Times about the proposal, “If they receive an environmental impact statement that says ‘go for it,’ they could start in 2013. This is coming down to the wire.”
If you are on Facebook, I encourage you to add your photo to our petition, and please spread the word.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
Yesterday Oceana and its supporters braved foul weather to protest a truly foul idea. Armed with airhorns and megaphones they gave the Department of the Interior (DOI) a tiny preview of what is in store for the ocean’s inhabitants should the Department allow seismic airgun testing to go forward in the Atlantic Ocean.
The DOI is currently reviewing a proposal to use seismic airguns to search for pockets of oil and gas in a huge expanse of ocean from Delaware to Florida. The effects of these round-the-clock tests, which will run for days on end with dynamite-like blasts firing at 10 second intervals, will be devastating to marine mammals and fish alike.
As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck said at the event:
“There is only one word that I can use that sums up this proposal: unacceptable. The levels of impacts to protected dolphins and whales, including critically endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale are simply unacceptable.”
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.