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.
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
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 “top holes” 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:
“Today Shell announced yet another last minute change of plans for this summer’s drilling season due to new problems with its oil spill containment equipment,” said Oceana Senior Pacific Director Susan Murray. “Oceana is just glad this didn’t happen during a real oil spill. This series of blunders inspires anything but confidence in the oil industry’s ability to safely drill in the Arctic. Shell’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.”
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.