Earlier this week, Shell Oil called off its plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska after its oil containment dome, equipment designed to cap an oil spill, was damaged during testing in the very un-arctic like waters of Bellingham, Washington.
Shell's track record in the Arctic inspires anything but confidence in the oil industry's ability to safely drill there. The company's repeated backtracking, last minute requests for permit changes, and inability to successfully complete preparations made it clear how it is next to impossible to drill safely for oil in the Arctic. Let's review Shell's efforts over this summer.
First, Shell selected an oil spill recovery barge called the Arctic Challenger which had spent the 20 previous years rusting away in west coast harbors. Shell then argued with the Coast Guard about what safety standards are necessary to withstand storms in the Arctic.
Second, Shell lost control of its drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor, AK when the vessel dragged anchor, the second time in just over a year that the boat had significant problems with its anchoring system.
Third, the company announced it could no longer meet its commitment to clean-up 95% of a worst-case spill, and instead, as its drill ships headed to the Arctic, Shell promised only to "encounter" spilled oil. Shell's backtracking on its commitment to clean up spilled oil isn't a surprise to those familiar with oil spills. The unforgiving natural conditions of the Arctic and the lack of infrastructure would make cleaning up spilled oil nearly impossible.
Fourth, Shell sought a waiver of Clean Air Act requirements, conceding that it could not meet conditions to which it had previously agreed.
Recently Shell was petitioning the government for permission to drill past an impending drilling deadline -- set because of dangers posed to drilling operations by an increasingly wintry, ice laden and dangerous Arctic Ocean. Not long after, Shell was forced to halt drilling in the Chukchi Sea -- one day after starting -- due to encroaching sea ice.
During the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, cleanup crews had access to hundreds of airports, 30 Coast Guard bases, fleets of private boats and what seemed to be unlimited manpower. In the Arctic, that infrastructure doesn't exist. The nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away. Had Shell's containment cap broken later on in the drilling process, we may have all bore witness to just how hard it really is to clean up a spill in the Arctic, especially with a recovery barge thought to be unfit by the Coast Guard.
In the end, Shell finally did the sensible thing by cancelling its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic this year. But without doubt, they'll be back as soon as the ice begins to melt in 2013. The federal government must learn from Shell's mishaps and failures and recognize that we are not prepared to drill in the Arctic.
There is no price tag on the Arctic. No matter how much money the company spends, Shell should not be allowed put the Arctic Ocean at risk. Companies like Shell must be held to the highest standards. If Shell has proved one thing this summer it is that the oil industry is not ready to drill in the Arctic. It is time to put the thought of Arctic drilling back on the shelf.
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