Shell’s Arctic drilling is what everyone feared: An unmitigated disaster


This is what passes for “good news’ on the domestic offshore drilling front these days: An environmental disaster seems to have been narrowly averted in the waters off Alaska — after an accident that carried echoes of the Exxon Valdez spill there a generation ago and which amplified the worst fears about a risky new venture in the Arctic:

Crews hoped to board an oil drilling rig on Wednesday that went aground off an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

A number of flights to the stricken vessel were planned, including to try to get team of marine experts on board to determine if the Kulluk could be refloated. The Kulluk broke loose of its tether to a tug boat in stormy seas last week and grounded onto a sand and gravel beach.

A slight break in the weather – 30 mph winds and 6-foot waves with 12-foot swells — gave a team of Coast Guard, local and company officials optimism that salvage teams could be put in place, Jason Moore, a unified command spokesman told NBC News on Wednesday.

“It’s not great, but it’s better than what it has been over the last several days,” Moore said. “It is a bit of a break and were hoping we can take advantage of the improving weather”  

The Kulluk remained stranded but stable off Sitkalidak Island, which is along the southeastern coast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, Moore said. A Coast Guard cutter stationed to observe overnight Tuesday reported no leaks, he said.

At least no oil has leaked so far, anyway. The world will have to keep its fingers crossed for the next few days while the recovery teams investigate in horrific conditions. Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling experiment is a worst-case example in our extreme quest to slake our addiction for oil and other fossil fuels by drilling in deeper water, in the coldest climates or the hottest deserts, in mountainous terrain or amid once pristine environmental splendor. Indeed, what Shell is attempting in Alaska is much, much more risky than BP’s notion that it could safely drill for oil one mile under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

And we all know h0w that turned out.

The truth is that Shell’s scheme to explore for oil in the waters off Alaska has been a fiasco from Day One. Ironically, the Obama administration signed off on this plan after the Deepwater Horizon disaster that has devastated the Gulf of Mexico. Why? Most likely, the president was eager to silence his critics on the right — those of the “drill baby drill” mindset — by showing that he had grown U.S. production of fossil fuels (which indeed he did). Even this reckless scheme to drill in the extreme cold, wind and icy waters of Arctic was OK’ed in this political climate. As I wrote on the blog this September, the world won a brief reprieve this summer when Shell’s containment dome failed to work, just as experts predicted.

Here’s a fairly appalling summary from the environmental website Grist on everything that’s gone wrong with the Shell project so far:

Here’s a list of things that have gone wrong so far in the company’s hyperactive push to suck oil from the Arctic ocean floor. (I have added a totally believable fake one; can you spot it?)

Heh — I think it’s that last one, although I’m not 100 percent certain. It’s hard to know what to take seriously with Shell, when they have practically all but conceded that a major accident will take place if their Arctic project continues:

No oil company has ever operated in an environment as extreme as the Arctic, let alone with heritage equipment—yet that’s exactly the sort of challenge that makes the Arctic so appealing to many of us at Shell.

On the slight chance that something does go wrong, Shell’s spill cleanup plan is second to none. No one has yet fully determined how to clean up an oil spill in pack ice or broken ice—but that too is exactly the sort of challenge we love.

That is not a parody from Grist or from some other left-wing website — it is from Shell’s own page. Look. maybe Shell’s engineers relish that challenge, but the rest of us don’t want to see that. We all remember how well BP’s engineers rose to the enormous challenges presented by the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. I think the American people — and the world — have seen enough. It’s time for Shell to pull the plug on its harebrained Arctic scheme, before irreversible damage is done.

To learn more about the wreck of the Kulluk, please read:

To read my blog post from Sept. 20 about earlier problems with Shell’s Arctic drilling please check out:

 To see more of Grist’s reporting on Shell’s screw-ups in the Arctic, check out:

To read about the Kulluk from Shell’s own website, go to:

 © 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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