As Start of Alaska Drilling Looms, Challenges Continue

Although Shell hasn’t received the green light to begin exploratory oil drilling off the coast of Alaska, its rigs are heading up there.

In fact, in a hilarious mishap for a company that says it’s prepared for some of earth’s most extreme conditions, Shell lost control of a drilling rig this week and it rammed into shore. 

Although Shell denied the rig actually reached shore, observers confirmed that it did, giving us some insight into what to expect if bigger problems arise.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Sarah Francis says the anchor slipped probably because of 27-35 miles per hour winds – incredibly calm conditions compared to those common in the Arctic – hurricane-force gales, 20-foot swells, and dynamic sea ice.  

The Department of Interior (DOI) says it will make its final decision by mid-August after Shell won the right to drill in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in May. An appeals court threw out a lawsuit by environmental and indigenous groups.

"We have not yet given the final permits to Shell," says DOI Secretary Salazar. "We don’t know if it will occur, and if it does occur, it will be done under the most watched program in the history of the United States." DOI is still waiting for oil spill test results, they say.

U.S. Coast Guard officials have repeatedly explained that the resources to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean simply don’t exist. Last summer, Commandant Admiral Robert Papp told Congress the federal government has "zero" spill response capability in the Arctic."

Back in Court Again

With just weeks to go before drilling starts, a coalition of environmental groups represented by Earthjustice have filed another lawsuit, again challenging the federal government’s approval of Shell’s oil spill response plan.

The groups allege the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEEE) violated federal law when it approved Shell’s sketchy response plans. The cleanup equipment Shell plans to use hasn’t even been tested in Arctic waters since 2000 and, even then, those tests failed!

The lawsuit also challenges Shell’s lack of detail about its Arctic containment system, and it faults BSEEE for requiring Shell detail how it would handle a late season spill.

"There is a very real possibility that winter sea ice could close in and shut down spill response leaving a blowout uncontrolled for eight or more months," says Earthjustice.

Shell’s exploration plan estimates a worst-case scenario blowout would release 400,000 barrels of oil into the Beaufort Sea, and that it could recapture 90% of the oil.

Based on what happened in the Gulf spill – where 5 million barrels were released and about 10% was recovered (as was in the Exxon Valdez spill) – and that was in relatively favorable conditions – Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris calls Shell’s cleanup plan "unrealistic, insulting and irresponsible."

When pushed to explain this assumption, Shell quickly back-pedaled and said that it will not ‘recover,’ but only ‘encounter’ spilled oil.

Insurance giant Lloyd’s of London warns that offshore drilling in the Arctic constitutes a "unique and hard-to-manage risk" and urges companies to "think carefully about the consequences of action" before exploring for oil in the region.

The coalition behind the lawsuit includes many leading environmental organizations: Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, National Audobon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Pacific Environment and Sierra Club.

They write: 

"We have been forced to court to make sure the Arctic Ocean is protected and Shell is prepared, as mandated by law. BSEE rubber-stamped plans that rely on unbelievable assumptions, include equipment that has never been tested in Arctic conditions, and ignore the very real possibility that a spill could continue through the winter. The agency has not met minimum legal standards to be sure that Shell’s plans could be effective and that Shell has sufficient boats, resources, and spill responders to remove a ‘worst-case’ oil spill in the Arctic Ocean to the ‘maximum extent practicable.

"Even after Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Salazar brushed aside concerns about Shell’s spill response capabilities, stating recently that ‘there is not going to be an oil spill.’

Can’t Meet Air Quality Standards

Meanwhile, Shell’s drilling rigs can’t meet emission standards under the Clean Air Act, so it’s asking the EPA to let it off the hook. 

Shell’s own documents show it knew about this in 2010, but instead of fixing the problem, it asked EPA for a waiver in the eleventh hour.

Despite the fact that Shell’s rigs will emit triple the allowed nitrogen oxide and its oil response vessel would emit 10 tmes the allowed particulate matter, Shell has told the media it’s certain EPA will give it a waiver.  

Greenpeace Hoax Website

Greenpeace and Yes Lab are behind the new Arctic Ready website (which received almost 2 million views this week)and "Let’s Go!" campaign, harnessing social media, online video and gaming in a full-blown assault on Shell, says Huffington Post.

The website is such a great hoax that some have been confused about whether its a failed greenwashing attempt by Shell.

"We’re trying to use humor and … social media to call Shell out for what is a reckless and unscientific drilling program, and to engage the public," says Greenpeace. 

House Moves Forward

Meanwhile, the House is moving on legislation that would mandate offshore oil drilling off the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts and speed drilling in every possible area in the Arctic. The mandate would over-rule state rights.

The Senate blocked the measure which the House attached to the Transportation Bill, so they’re trying again. It also would open millions of acres in the West to oil shale and force through Canada’s tar sands pipeline.

The Obama administration opened some areas of the Arctic to drilling in its 5-year offshore oli and gas plan.

It’s a sad irony that as Shell moves to drill in the Arctic in August, Congress approved billions of dollars (in the Transportation Bill) to help the Gulf recover from the BP spill.

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