A temporary reprieve from Shell’s risky and reckless Arctic drilling scheme


For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been consumed with the never-ending fallout from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. Some 29 months after the explosion that killed 11 people and spewed 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve seen a hurricane toss BP’s oil onto our once pristine beaches all over again. And we’ve also been fighting it out in the legal arena — to make sure that people whose livelihood and whose health has been harmed by the recklessness of Big Oil receive justice.

Sometimes it seems like a complicated tale, but actualy what happened off the coast of Louisiana is actually fairly simple. In order to feed society’s increasingly desperate addiction to fossil fuels, BP was attempting something that’s very, very hard: Drilling for oil way offshore, under one mile of seawater. Despite the inherently dangerous nature of this enterprise, emails and other evidence show that BP was remarkably careless in its safety and testing procedures, and government regulators were lax in their oversight. The accident was proof of the worst-case scenarios with such high-risk drilling.

Because of our recent troubles here in the Gulf, it’s been appalling to see another icon of Big Oil, Shell, forge ahead with an arguably riskier operation, drilling off-shore in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Despite strong and well-reasoned objections from leading environmental groups, Shell Oil pushed ahead with the approval of the Obama administration, whose common-sense concerns about deep-water drilling are often overridden by a need to show voters that domestic oil production is on the rise. Shell assured its critics that a containment dome would prevent any type of disaster along the lines of what the Gulf encountered in 2010.

So how did that work out with the containment dome?

Shell has been accused of “stock-car racing recklessness” after apparently undertaking only the most limited testing of a key piece of equipment aimed at preventing a Gulf of Mexico-style blowout during its controversial drilling in the Arctic.

Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request suggest field-testing of a containment dome took place over two hours on 25 and 26 June. The dome, known as a “capping stack”, would be dropped over any stricken wellhead.

Two officials from the bureau of safety and environmental enforcement (BSSE) – an arm of the US interior department – were present with Shell officials at the tests in Puget Sound, Washington, but there was no independent verification of the tests.

In other words, the claim that this containment dome would be rigorously tested was a joke from Day One. As critics correctly pointed out, the cap was merely dangled in 200 feet of water and tested for a matter of minutes — hardly evidence that it could stand up to the rigors of a Deepwater Horizon-type spill. Meanwhile, the delays and problems piled up as Shell tried to get its drilling operation underway before the end of the short Arctic summer. For example:

The containment vessel designed to capture oil in the event of a spill during exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska has itself been responsible for four minor illegal fluid discharges during the last three weeks, the Coast Guard confirmed Monday.

And now, finally, a small piece of good news on the environmental front:

HOUSTON — With the prospect of rich new oil fields in tantalizing reach, Shell Oil announced on Monday that it was forced to put off completing wells in the Alaskan Arctic for another year after a spill containment dome was damaged during a testing accident.

While the company will perform preliminary work this year on several wells in the region, it will not be able to drill for oil until next summer at the earliest.

The latest setback in Shell’s six-year, $4.5 billion effort to drill off the coast of Alaska heartened environmentalists, who have opposed the drilling program at every turn.

Some suggested that Shell’s inability to control its containment equipment in calm waters under predictable test conditions suggested that the company would not be able to effectively stop a sudden leak in treacherous Arctic waters, when powerful ice floes and gusty winds would complicate any spill response.

The battle is far from over, but at least the delay until next year offers a little more time to fight this risky and ill-advised scheme. Given how difficult it’s been to get BP’s oil out of the Gulf, the thought of trying to fight a major oil spill in the treacherous conditions of the Arctic simply boggles the mind. They say that the definition of insanity is trying the exact same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That’s just how I would describe Shell’s Alaska drilling adventure: Insane.

To find out about Shell’s inadequate testing of the containment dome, please read: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/sep/09/shell-criticised-limited-testing-alaska-drilling-containment?newsfeed=true

To read more about the delay of Shell’s Arctic drilling until 2013, please read: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/business/global/shell-delays-arctic-oil-drilling-until-next-year.html

For an excellent summary of Shell’s problems with drilling off Alaska, check out: http://grist.org/news/shell-gives-up-on-arctic-drilling-until-next-year/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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