Ocean Currents

Department of Interior to Shell Oil: Let’s Hope For The Best

Credit: Damian Gadal flickr stream

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued an interim permit that authorizes Shell Oil to begin initial drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea — part of the Arctic Ocean northwest of Alaska. The decision does not allow Shell to drill into known oil or gas-bearing layers. Even so, it is a significant step in the wrong direction.

BSEE Director James Watson claimed that today’s permit decision is consistent with the agency’s commitment to use the “highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards.”

It sure doesn’t seem that way.

If BSEE were serious about holding Shell to the highest standards, the agency would insist that no drilling take place until all of Shell’s oil spill response tools are on site and ready to respond in the event of an emergency. Instead, BSEE’s decision will allow Shell to drill roughly 1,400 feet below the ocean floor without an oil spill response barge and containment system on site.

Shell’s oil spill response barge and containment system remain in Bellingham, WA, far from the Arctic. The barge is still undergoing renovations required before the Coast Guard can certify the vessel for use in the Arctic. The containment system has not received final certification, either. When and if the Coast Guard certifies the barge and containment system, it will take roughly two weeks to get them from Bellingham to Shell’s drilling site in the Chukchi. Two weeks would be an agonizingly long time to wait if something went wrong during the initial phases of Shell’s operations.

Delays with the barge and containment system are not the only cause for concern. As I explained earlier, Shell admitted that it wouldn’t be able to comply with the terms of its original EPA air permit, and the company has backpedaled from its claim that it will be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill. If BSEE were serious about holding Shell to the highest standards, it would not allow Shell to drill unless and until Shell showed that it was prepared to comply fully with these environmental protection requirements.

To be clear, the interim permit that BSEE issued today allows only initial drilling and well preparation work.  It does not allow Shell to drill into layers that are expected to contain oil or gas. If everything goes as expected, there is relatively low risk that these initial activities would lead to a blowout or oil spill.

The trouble is things don’t always go as expected, and in a place as fragile and remote as the Arctic, the consequences of an accident could be catastrophic. Instead of requiring Shell to do everything possible to prepare for the worst, BSEE has decided to allow Shell to start Arctic drilling operations and hope for the best.

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