Arctic drilling: strange politics and inspiration

UPDATE, Aug. 17

Arctic drilling may be delayed until next year, because Shell’s oil-containment vessel is still not ready, according to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

“I will hold their feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set, and to make sure that the environment and the Arctic seas are protected,” Salazar said during a press conference in Anchorage.

A shell spokesman expressed hope that the drilling would still begin this fall.

For details, see the stories by Lisa Demer of the Anchorage Daily News and Olga Belogolova of the National Journal.
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UPDATE, July 31

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is not sitting around waiting for Shell to begin its drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. Greenpeace biologists have reported the presence of a soft coral at the drill site. I’m not sure how significant this is, but Julie Eilperin of the Washington Post has the story. Greenpeace has the photo.
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UPDATE, June 29

Shell's drilling vessel Kulluk leaves Seattle Wednesday. / Photo by Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Interior released a five-year plan for oil and gas leases yesterday, as two Shell exploratory rigs headed out of Puget Sound on their way to the Alaskan Arctic.

The Shell drilling vessels Kulluk and Noble Discoverer were headed for Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, where they will wait until the ice clears in Beaufort and Chukchi seas. See Vigor’s news release about alterations made to the two rigs.

In a news release with links to the plans, David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, said :

“We are committed to moving forward with leasing offshore Alaska, and scheduling those sales later in the program allows for further development of scientific information on the oil and gas resource potential in these areas and further study of potential impacts to the environment. We must reconcile energy resource development with the sensitive habitats, unique conditions and important other uses, including subsistence hunting and fishing, that are present in Alaska waters.”

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UPDATE, June 27
This week, the Obama administration will announce a five-year program for offshore oil-leasing. It will include targeted areas for exploration and drilling in Alaska’s Arctic, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said yesterday.

Salazar said permits to allow Shell to conduct exploratory drilling in the Arctic, as we have discussed in this blog, are likely to be issued soon.

Associated Press writer Dan Joling does a nice job explaining Salazar’s comments. See Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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UPDATE, June 22
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza has arrived in Alaskan waters. Photo posted on Twitter.
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UPDATE, June 12, 3 p.m.
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza has left Seattle on its way to the Arctic, according to ongoing reports on Twitter. As of 3 p.m., the ship is just crossing the Edmonds-Kingston ferry lanes.
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UPDATE, June 12, 2:30 p.m.
I’ve added maps of the two drilling areas at the bottom of this post.
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After anchoring for nearly a week in South Kitsap’s Yukon Harbor, the Greenpeace ship Esperanza on Friday moved over to Seattle, where it now waits for Shell’s oil-drilling rigs to shove off for Alaska.

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza was anchored in Yukon Harbor for nearly a week.
Photo by Tom Warren

Shell obtained an injunction (PDF 32 kb) against Greenpeace in hopes of preventing environmental activists from boarding its oil rig and unfurling banners or causing more serious damage.

Shell is clearly concerned, as outlined in legal documents (PDF 60 kb) in support of the injunction:

“After obtaining multiple approvals from various federal agencies, and after completing preparations that have been years and billions of dollars in the making, Shell intends to lawfully, safely, and responsibly carry out an exploration drilling program on its leases in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the summer of 2012.

“Greenpeace intends to prevent Shell from doing so, and has initiated tortious and illegal actions to accomplish this publically-stated intent. Greenpeace’s past and present actions establish that Greenpeace can and will engage in dangerous and illegal activities that place human life, property, and the environment at risk, all in an effort to impose its will and to capitalize on publicity generated by its antics.”

Greenpeace says its goal is to shadow the oil rigs and document the activities from miniature submarines to help the public understand the dangers that drilling poses to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. See Kitsap Sun, June 4.

For environmentalists, the biggest question is: How did this drilling ever get approval? Why did a Democratic president allow Shell to get all the permits necessary to explore for oil in the Arctic, after strong opposition through the years succeeded in keeping drilling rigs out of the Arctic.

Shell was strategic in its approach, as described in a well-researched story by John M. Broder and Clifford Krauss for the New York Times:

“Beyond the usual full-court lobbying effort, Shell abandoned its oil industry brethren and joined advocates pushing for a strong response to climate change.

“Ultimately, Shell won the backing of a president it had viewed warily during the 2008 campaign. While he signaled conditional support for the proposal years ago, Mr. Obama came under pressure from rising gasoline prices and the assiduous lobbying of a freshman Democratic senator from Alaska eager to show he could make things happen in Washington.

“The move also provides the president a measure of political cover. ‘Alaska tends to be a litmus test for the energy debate,’ said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of energy policy research at Rice University. ‘When Romney says the president is anti-drilling and causes high gas prices, Obama can turn around and say, “I approved drilling in Alaska.”’”

By executive order, Obama set up a special interagency commission to oversee “the safe and responsible development of onshore and offshore energy resources and associated infrastructure in Alaska.”

Obama’s steady pressure in favor of drilling in the Arctic (“It’s not deep water, right?”) eventually overcame concerns within his own administration, despite warnings from the commission investigating the BP oil-spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the NY Times article:

“The commission’s final report said that for Arctic drilling to be done safely, ‘both industry and government will have to demonstrate standards and a level of performance higher than they have ever achieved before.’ …

“The government strengthened its Arctic research programs to better understand the impact of increased industrial activity in the northern ocean. Those and other concessions seemed to placate officials at the permitting agencies, who were navigating between their regulatory duties and the president’s obvious desire to drill.

“Shell’s permits came in a rush. Interior approved exploration in both seas by last December. Response plans were endorsed in February and March of this year. The EPA’s appeals board cleared the final air permits at the end of March — just as the whaling season got under way. NOAA came through with a marine mammal permit in early May.”

As far as I can tell, Shell is waiting only for its final drilling permits from the Department of Interior and for the ice to clear in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Shell's oil-drilling rig Kulluk prepares to head for Alaska. This photo was taken last year on its way into Seattle.
AP file photo, 2011

As Shell’s oil rigs prepare to pull out of Seattle, Alaska’s governor and the state’s two U.S. senators recently visited Seattle to take a look at Shell’s oil rigs on the eve of the historic drilling activity, as reported by Jennifer A. Dlouhy of the Houston Chronicle.

Dlouhy quoted Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, as expressing confidence in Shell’s ability to drill safely: “I think they know as well as anybody that there is no margin for cutting corners.”

The article also included environmental concerns about an oil spill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem, which could be worse than the Exxon Valdez in Prince Williams Sound, where oil is still showing up 23 years after a multibillion-dollar cleanup.

“If there is a spill in the Arctic, the oil and damage will almost certainly degrade slower and last longer,” Richard Steiner, former marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska was quoted as saying.

A new story out this morning in Macleans magazine includes an interview with Peter Voser, chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell, who touches briefly on this summer’s drilling in the Arctic:

“I think responsible operators like us have learned (from the Gulf of Mexico blowout) to further improve prevention and containment. On the prevention part, I think we have gone further than anywhere else in the world in Alaska with our safety systems, like double-blowout preventers and various other safety and security systems built in.

“And let’s be very clear what exploration means—drilling wells, and we’re looking at 10 in two years. These wells will be capped afterwards, and we’ll take the information we’ve gained to prepare development plans for the longer term.

“We have tested and put a lot of money into scientific analysis on how to deal with oil spills below ice. I think today we are of the opinion that we can deal with it. That’s not necessary in the exploration phase, because we will only drill in ice-free periods. It’s a challenging environment, a challenging process. But as an industry, and also as a company, we’ve spent significant money developing technical solutions to that. These solutions over the years will improve.”

Logan Price of Occupy Wall Street, a former Seattle resident who helped orchestrate last week’s leaky drink-derrick stunt (Water Ways, June 7), semi-apologized for lying as he laid out his case in a column in yesterday’s Alaska Dispatch.

“In the case of Arctic drilling,” he wrote, “all bets are off.”

Price continued:

“The problem is, in the last few years, we’ve gone from one epic ecological or human disaster to the next so rapidly that it’s hard to get people to pay attention. Remember how much the Exxon Valdez dominated the news, when we were kids and that drunk captain drove a mega tanker into a rock in Prince William Sound?

“Is that old era, of being shocked at shocking things, ending? We’ve nearly forgotten about Deepwater Horizon already — maybe there’s just too much to be bummed about. But in my experience the antidote to depression is to do something, and if we don’t stop the ultra-rich from messing everything up for the sake of becoming uber-ultra-rich, our lives are only going to get continually less inspiring.”

The maps below show the drilling areas in the Chuckchi and Beaufort seas. (Click twice to enlarge.)

8 thoughts on “Arctic drilling: strange politics and inspiration

  1. UPDATE, June 27

    This week, the Obama administration will announce a five-year program for offshore oil-leasing. It will include targeted areas for exploration and drilling in Alaska’s Arctic, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said yesterday.

    Salazar said permits to allow Shell to conduct exploratory drilling in the Arctic, as we have discussed in this blog, are likely to be issued soon.

    Associated Press writer Dan Joling does a nice job explaining Salazar’s comments. See Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

  2. UPDATE, June 29


    The Shell drilling vessel Kulluk leaves Seattle Wednesday.
    Associated Press photo

    The U.S. Department of Interior released a five-year plan for oil and gas leases yesterday, as two Shell exploratory rigs headed out of Puget Sound on their way to the Alaskan Arctic.

    The Shell drilling vessels Kulluk and Noble Discoverer were headed for Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, where they will wait until the ice clears in Beaufort and Chukchi seas. See Vigor’s news release about alterations made to the two rigs.

    In a news release with links to the plans, David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, said :

    “We are committed to moving forward with leasing offshore Alaska, and scheduling those sales later in the program allows for further development of scientific information on the oil and gas resource potential in these areas and further study of potential impacts to the environment. We must reconcile energy resource development with the sensitive habitats, unique conditions and important other uses, including subsistence hunting and fishing, that are present in Alaska waters.”

  3. If there were less demand, we would not be drilling, would we…Instead of attacking the companies who are inherently designed to take advantage of such market opportunities, how can a consumer make daily choices, that over time, could change the company’s market strategy?

    The challenge is getting enough people really concerned about climate change, pollution related to plastics, the cost of gasoline, the cost of heating with petroleum products, issues related to wars over petroleum products, and spills of petroleum products. If we had enough people in the market truly concerned – that is, to the point where they would change their purchasing behavior – the market would change.

    People would stop purchasing petroleum based products (plastics, cars, heating oils, etc.) and pressure companies to produce technologies that would find alternatives.

    I am making those choices whenever I can. I know others are as well. I hope more join. At some point, it will no longer be as profitable to create a gas-powered car as a hybrid or an electric car. It will no longer be profitable to sell Tupperware compared to Corningware. Plastic bag bans will be common. Solar panels and backyard windmills will be everywhere. This is when the market will shift. “Fossil” fuels really are fossils, in that they are based on outdated technology.

    I am looking forward to a new future, with new technology, where we do not do archaic things like drill in pristine ocean habitat with gigantic cumbersome machines to find small amounts of non-renewable resources made out of dead plant material in order to power our cars so we can drive to Safeway at 3:00 a.m.

  4. UPDATE, July 31

    The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is not sitting around waiting for Shell to begin its drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. Greenpeace biologists have reported the presence of a soft coral at the drill site. I’m not sure how significant this is, but Julie Eilperin of the Washington Post has the story. Greenpeace has the photo.

  5. UPDATE, Aug. 17

    Arctic drilling may be delayed until next year, because Shell’s oil-containment vessel is still not ready, according to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

    “I will hold their feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set, and to make sure that the environment and the Arctic seas are protected,” Salazar said during a press conference in Anchorage.

    A shell spokesman expressed hope that the drilling would still begin this fall.

    For details, see the stories by Lisa Demer of the Anchorage Daily News and Olga Belogolova of the National Journal.

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