Tag Archives: Chukchi Sea

Initial Arctic drilling to start without containment

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.”

The Seattle Times reviews the situation in a Friday story, and a blog entry by NPR’s Bill Chappell provides an update on today’s towing effort.

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.

The Arctic Challenger, shown in this Aug. 15 photo, is undergoing renovation in Bellingham before heading to the Alaskan Arctic.
AP Photo/Bellingham Herald, Russ Kendall

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.”

Quick to object to the approval were the:
Natural Resources Defense Council,
Center for Biological Diversity,
Audubon Alaska,
and Earthjustice.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”


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.

UPDATE, June 22
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza has arrived in Alaskan waters. Photo posted on Twitter.

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.

UPDATE, June 12, 2:30 p.m.
I’ve added maps of the two drilling areas at the bottom of this post.

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:

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