UPDATE, Jan. 7, 2013
The House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, a group of 45 Democratic U.S. representatives, have called for an investigation into the recent grounding of Shell’s oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Alaska. The coalition issued this statement:
“The recent grounding of Shell’s Kulluk oil rig amplifies the risks of drilling in the Arctic. This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders, including the near grounding of another of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs, the 47-year-old Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor and the failure of its blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, in lake-like conditions. SEEC Members believe these serious incidents warrant thorough investigation.”
UPDATE, Sept. 20, 2012
Shell has given up plans to drill for oil in the Alaskan Arctic this year, after its oil-spill-containment dome was damaged during exercises off the Washington Coast. See the story by Sean Cockerham in the Anchorage Daily News.
Meanwhile, the Washington Department of Ecology has ordered two companies working on an oil-containment system in Bellingham to apply for stormwater permits. Ecology determined in May that permits were needed but decided to let things go, because work was supposed to be completed by the end of July. Now it appears that work will continue under other contracts. See Ecology news release.
In Great Britain, the Environmental Audit Committee of the U.K. Parliament has released a report questioning Arctic drilling in the face of what is known about the risks.
Among her comments on Parliament’s website, Committee Chairwoman Joan Walley, MP, stated:
“The oil companies should come clean and admit that dealing with an oil spill in the icy extremes of the Arctic would be exceptionally difficult.
“The infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation is simply not in place, and conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in such severe conditions.”
UPDATE, Sept. 11, 2012
Shell Oil stopped drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea yesterday,
one day after drilling began, when the winds shifted and sea ice
began moving toward the drilling vessel. Both Shell officials and
opponents of Arctic drilling acknowledged that the challenge of sea
ice is a major issue in Arctic drilling, which Shell intends to
resume soon. Dan Joling of the
Associated Press has the story with additions by Anchorage
Daily News staff.
Shell Oil Co. will be allowed to begin initial drilling and other preparatory work in the Alaskan Arctic while waiting for its oil-containment barge to arrive in the Chukchi Sea, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said yesterday in an announcement that took many people by surprise.
As we have discussed before in “Water Ways,” Shell Oil is still trying to start its drilling this year before the sea ice moves in. The oil-containment barge Arctic Challenger is still undergoing renovation in Bellingham but could be leaving within a week.
Salazar told reporters in a press conference that the drilling can go down 1,400 feet but will not reach oil deposits. Shell will be allowed to excavate for a 40-foot-deep “cellar” in the seabed to install the required blowout preventer.
Lisa Demer of the Anchorage Daily News describes the work approved for now:
“Under the drilling permit issued Thursday for the ‘Burger A well,’ Shell says it first will drill a pilot hole, 1,300 feet deep but just 8 1/2 inches in diameter, to reveal physical obstructions, gas pockets or anything else that didn’t show up in seismic studies and shallow hazard surveys already done.
“A bigger hole will be drilled part way down, and steel conductor pipe will be encased in cement. Using a tool weighing several tons, crews will excavate a mud-line cellar 40 feet deep to hold the blowout preventer. Shell says the cellar will be deep enough to prevent scouring from ice, one of the issues raised by environmentalists.
“A 20-inch-diameter hole then will be drilled down to 1,300 or 1,400 feet, and workers will install casing, again surrounded in cement, to add structure to the well. Drillers can either go deeper from there, or cap the well for later work.”
Meanwhile, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has filed a lawsuit seeking testing data regarding a potential blowout in Arctic waters.
Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, requested the cap test data under the Freedom of Information Act but says the government failed to respond as required by law. Steiner’s comment:
“The Department of Interior and Shell say that the capping stack tests were rigorous and proved the equipment will work to stop a wellhead blowout. But the public deserves to see the test results to judge whether the testing was indeed rigorous, and whether the capping stack actually works. That DOI is delaying release of the results, and Shell is poised to begin drilling its first Arctic Ocean wells within days, underscores the urgency here. This is why we needed to sue to obtain the results.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the Interior Department for not fully documenting its own oversight processes. The GAO also warned that “environmental and logistical risks” of drilling in the Arctic are not the same as for the Gulf of Mexico, where many safety refinements have been made.
PEER’s attorney Kathryn Douglass made this point:
“Given its track record, Interior cannot just say ‘Trust us, we have this covered.’ Complete transparency on this paramount issue is essential for public confidence that the federal government is not again accommodating oil companies at the expense of protecting irreplaceable public resources.”
The oil-containment barge Arctic Challenger has had its own challenges lately, including an enforcement order from the Washington Department of Ecology following three small spills of hydraulic oil.
I thought the quote attributed to Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology’s Spill Prevention Program, was somewhat intriguing:
“Small spills lead to bigger spills. Our hope is that the companies that are gearing up for oil work in Alaska and spilling here will learn from our work with them and ensure spills of all sizes are prevented everywhere they work.”