Yesterday in Anchorage, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s decision to approve Shell Oil’s plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. The court’s decision is a setback, but it doesn’t change the fact that Shell has failed to meet its obligation to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic at every turn.
The 2012 Arctic drilling season for Shell was remarkably calamitous. From the beginning, Shell experienced failures when their drillship the Noble Discoverer nearly ran aground in Unalaska Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. By the end of the drilling season, the same drillship developed propulsion problems and needed to be towed into port in Seward for repairs.
Then in late December, the Kulluk, Shell’s other Arctic drilling unit, ran aground off of Sitkalidak Island after heavy seas snapped the towline between it and Shell’s tugboat. After a salvage operation plucked the Kulluk off the coast—thankfully with no major injuries or spills—it was eventually dry-towed to Asia for repairs in March.
All of these events happened during the same season that the U.S. Coast Guard held back Shell’s oil spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, in Bellingham, Wash., for failure to meet required safety standards. The Arctic Challenger was stuck in Bellingham until October 11, almost the end of the drilling season and long after Shell’s 2012 mistakes in Alaska began.
Similarly, Shell’s oil spill containment dome was not ready in time for the drilling season. When Shell tested the dome in September 2012, it failed spectacularly and was so badly damaged that Shell was forced to call off its plans to drill into oil-bearing layers.
Shell’s 2012 drilling season proved that even one of the world’s biggest companies was not prepared for operations in the challenging and remote waters of the Arctic Ocean. From the near-grounding of the Noble Discoverer to the troubles with oil spill response equipment to the actual grounding of the Kulluk, Shell’s actions evidence a lack of preparedness and an inability to work safely and responsibly in the Arctic.
The court may have decided that Shell’s plan complied with the law yesterday, but that does nothing to change the fact that any oil spill response in the Arctic, just like any attempts to drill there, will be incredibly difficult.
We all know that oil and water don’t mix, and that’s especially true in the Arctic. After seeing Shell’s track record, where failure to meet expectations has been the norm, there is no doubt that we should pause and reconsider whether and how oil companies can operate safely in the Arctic under such risky conditions.