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Shell Oil in Arctic: Learning to juggle, with chainsaws

Daniel Lum
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. US Coast Guard photo

Looking back at an eventful season in offshore drilling, one must consider the challenges of the Arctic Ocean in tandem with the limitations of industry trying to operate so far north. Shell Oil has skated through one operational failure after another, a credit to their spokesman, without real consequence or permit restriction.

Air permit emission limits were grossly violated yet drill operations continued. Rigging and towline failures show that moving (and even securing) Shell's mobile drill units is a challenge. A failed capping system limited the depth to which they could drill this season, requiring repairs thousands of miles away. Multiple critical engine failures also demonstrate their support vessels’ failed under stress. The eventual grounding of Shell's giant mobile oil-drilling rig, the Kulluk, off Kodiak Island conveys a serious lack of planning to save a few dollars (before you go boating, check the weather).

Could these mishaps be chalked up to bad luck? No. These operational bungles were all preventable. After each incident the Hague-based mega-corporation's emissaries insist they're on top of it, assuring us that these occurrences are minor glitches. In reality there is no learning curve in Far North waters. On location in the Arctic, there is no infrastructure to fall back upon, as the Kulluk's grounding proved. We have very limited resources spread thinly among Alaska's villages; the nearest Coast Guard station is days away by sea.

All of these limitations and mistakes can be directly attributed to Shell.

The biggest threat to Alaskan waters would come from a VLOS, or Very Large Oil Spill. The greatest concern among the opposition to Arctic offshore ventures is the complete lack of demonstrated spill response in the event that a large oil spill occurred. In the nuclear, mining and other energy industries, containment must be proven before a project moves forward. Even onshore oil wells have to have proven response equipment and training before they can operate. For some reason the Arctic Ocean is exempt from such proven spill response requirements.

The rough waters, inconsistent and powerful sea ice movement and the general remoteness of Arctic offshore oil exploration sites have proven too much for Shell to demonstrate capable response under these conditions. Industry has yet to prove it has functioning spill response equipment at any capacity in the offshore Arctic. If you look on YouTube, you can see Shell’s animated video on how spill response would theoretically occur -- although there is no ocean ice in the video, the water is calm, and it appears to be happening on placid waters. Were conditions so favorable, there would be no issue of response.

I have a challenge for Shell Oil that would settle the issue of spill response: Prove it! With a few hundred brightly colored basketballs, dropped from a helicopter, we could determine whether or not Shell can contain anything. Containing a few hundred basketballs floating in the Arctic Ocean should come easily for Shell given its consistent reassurances that it can contain an oil spill, right? With all that equipment surely basketballs would not escape.

But if Shell had some capacity at spill response the company would have shown Alaskans long ago. It’s no secret that booms do not work well in rough seas and completely fail in broken ice. From the way things have gone this last year it looks like we could have a major accident up north very soon, and again, the real response capabilities have never been demonstrated.

I ask the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska to document the real capabilities of Shell’s spill response, in varied conditions, so everyone involved will know what to expect in the instance of a spill. The Coast Guard should be fully prepared for various sized spills in varied conditions. Shell’s recent operational failures demand a closer look to what would happen on location in the event of a spill. The USCG surely recognizes the realistic probability that a federal maritime response will be required in the event of oil industry incidences in OUR waters. It would be appropriate to know what everyone is capable of, beforehand.

Let's start with a few hundred basketballs ...

Daniel Lum lives in Fairbanks. He operated a wildlife tour company in Barrow and is a graduate of Ilisagvik College. His first book, a photo-narrative about the sandy spit of land known as Point Barrow, titled "Nuvuk, the Northernmost," will be released in June through the University of Alaska and University of Chicago presses.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.