Shell’s Arctic Drilling Mission Begins Without Oil Recovery Vessel

Photo: Tom Doyle

Oil and gas corporation Royal Dutch Shell (commonly known as Shell) has launched its offshore oil drilling fleet to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Alaska without the accompaniment of its oil recovery barge, which continues to await the US Coast Guard’s certification. It remains docked in Washington while the rest of the fleet has sailed North to Alaska, with several of the ships already arriving, and the window of seasonal opportunity to drill in the Arctic diminishing. The decision to allow the fleet to sail without the containment barge has come under criticism from environmental groups who have now filed a lawsuit against the United States government for allowing Shell to drill in the Arctic in the first place, given the controversial status of the company’s Arctic oil recovery plan.

The Coast Guard has not certified the Arctic Challenger because of concerns about the fire protection system, wiring and piping on the thirty-seven year old vessel. The Coast Guard also has doubts about the barge’s ability to withstand harsh arctic storms. Shell is working with the Coast Guard to address these issues. The containment barge is essential to the fleet as it is designed to deliver oil spill and control equipment to the five drilling sites proposed by Shell. Without it, in the event of an oil spill, Shell would be without access to the equipment necessary to totally control a spill.

Furthermore, Arctic waters are often prone to storms, the most serious of which are known as 100-year storms which, historically, occur about once every century. The Arctic Challenger meets the standard for a 10-year storm and Shell has requested that the Coast Guard alter the standard as it is applied to the Arctic Challenger to accommodate their ship’s inability to meet the 100-year requirement.

Unexpected weather conditions have already begun impacting Shell’s Arctic mission. Having had its July drilling date delayed due to unanticipatedly heavy summer ice, Shell will be drilling from August until the end of September in the Chukchi Sea and October in the Beaufort Sea, during which time both regions are known to experience near hurricane force winds, which threaten to spread any oil spilled under these conditions.


The ability to control spill damage in a timely manner in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas is also limited by the fact that the nearest towns in Alaska are about 1000 miles away from proposed drilling sites. The limited number of roads in Northern Alaska mean equipment must either be transported via air or water. Weather conditions hostile to these modes of transportation threaten to delay the arrival of any such assistance.

Shell’s oil containment plan

Despite the omission of the containment barge from its fleet, Shell does have an oil containment plan in the event that a spill occurs upon the extraction’s commencement. Literature published by Shell on Arctic oil spill prevention and response plans focuses firstly on prevention, including monitoring systems, blow-out prevention and a “culture” of safety, and in the event that these preventative measures fail, Shell has a response toolkit. The toolkit consists of systems and equipment to contain and collect spilled oil including subsea capping and containment systems, dispersants, mechanical containment, recovery and in situ burning.

Shell states that the response toolkit was tested under Arctic conditions by the Joint Industry Program on Oil Spill Contingency for Arctic and Ice Covered Waters, a process which included three years of field trials. The testing concluded that, “cold water and ice can aid oil spill response operations by slowing oil weathering, dampening wave action, and limiting the spread of oil.” Indeed the aforementioned literature suggests that Arctic temperatures actually provide the potential to improve the chances of an effective cleanup. However, the actual machinery that Shell will be using during drilling has not been successfully tested in the Arctic. The most recent such tests performed in the Arctic were the North Slope Broken Ice Response Trials of 2000, commissioned by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which bore results widely regarded as failures.


Shell’s ability to clean up any potential oil spill in the Arctic by using the proposed methods is especially disconcerting in light of the the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred off the coast of Southern Alaska in Prince William Sound in 1989, where waters were calmer than they are in the North. Efforts to burn floating slicks of oil were hampered and then abandoned due to rough water conditions. Additionally, efforts to skim oil off the water’s surface were frustrated due to waves and wind. The cleanup efforts following the Exxon Valdez spill recovered 8% of the spilt oil.

As quoted in the Washington Post, Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith stated, “we expect to ‘encounter’ 90% of any discharge on site – very close to the drilling rig.”

Smith went on to say, “We expect to encounter 5 percent near-shore between the drilling rig and the coast. And we expect to encounter another 5 percent on shore. We never make claims about the percent we could actually recover, because conditions vary, of course.”

In a further development, just a few weeks before Shell is set to begin its drilling operations, the company has asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise its air emissions permit as they admit that they have been unable to meet the pollution standard for the main drill bit generator on the Discoverer rig. Shell has said that they have been able to meet overall air quality standards and annual emissions standards, but the main generator is still emitting elevated levels of ammonia and nitrogen oxide despite the company having spent approximately $30 million to outfit the mechanism.

The company’s application for a revision states that, “Shell was then and remains now committed to making every effort to meet the emission limits imposed by the EPA” further adding that they have, “demonstrated compliance with a vast majority of limits.”

Shell is not unfamiliar with oil spills. A 2008 spill in the Nigerian town of Bodo in Ogoniland has resulted in a lawsuit brought against Shell in a London court by 11,000 Bodo inhabitants who claim the spill has caused continued damage to the environment, including the contamination of drinking water sources, and the fishing grounds upon which the town critically relies for food and income. Shell did make cleanup efforts but they have been criticized as being insufficient. A report released by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2011 stated, “Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: the Shell Petroleum Development Company’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues.”

Environmental groups sue federal government over lax standards

Environmental groups, including Oceana, Greenpeace, Ocean Conservancy and Alaska Wilderness League are critical of the federal government for its approval of Shell’s Arctic oil spill response plans. Their lawsuit does not seek to block Shell from drilling during the current season, but it does seek to prevent Shell and other oil and gas companies from drilling in future seasons. Conoco Phillips and Statoil have announced plans to drill off the coast of the Arctic within the next two years.

The lawsuit is invoking the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Oil Pollution Act, and asserts that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) signed off on the plans despite the fact that the oil spill plans require further scrutiny.

In a joint statement released before the filing of the lawsuit, the conservation groups claim that, “BSEE rubber-stamped plans that rely on unbelievable assumptions, include equipment that has never been tested in Arctic conditions, and ignore the very real possibility that a spill could continue through the winter. The agency has not met minimum legal standards to be sure that Shell’s plans could be effective.”

MSNBC has reported that Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith responded by stating that Shell’s oil spill plans, “will easily withstand legal review.”

The reality of oil spills

Oil spills are detrimental to the environment in a number of ways, most immediately to the surrounding marine life. Fish, birds and furred mammals are hugely affected by the oil, often becoming covered in it, limiting movement and in the case of birds, flight, or ingesting the oil. The effects of oil spills on marine life were observed in the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills, where in both cases, less than 10% of the spilled oil was actually cleaned up.

The National Wildlife Federation reports that in the six months following the Deepwater Horizon spill, nearly 8000 birds, sea turtles and other marine animals were reported to be injured or found dead as a result of the oil. Fish are known to suffocate from oil ingestion or to develop reproductive and growth problems that cause problems for future generations and fishing industries. The continued harm of such spills is illustrated by the oil which remains settled on the ocean floor, often to be dredged up by bottom-foraging animals. Estimates suggest that the lingering presence of the spilt oil will remain in these regions for decades, if not centuries.

Of particular concern in Northern Alaska are polar bear populations, which are already threatened due to global warming and the depleting number of ice floes from which they hunt. The Chukchi Sea is home to about one tenth of the world’s polar bear population. A spill in this region would threaten the population’s already scarce food sources and deteriorating habitat. Also of concern are grey whale populations that migrate to the northern seas in the spring. Recent studies suggest that an increase in marine noise pollution, including that of sonar, ship traffic and oil and gas exploration, is adversely affecting the hearing of whales and contributing to changes in behavioral patterns, including migratory patterns, often forcing them inland and often disturbing the mating process.

For communities that depend on fishing industries for income, oil spills can cause serious damage to fishing stocks. While commercial fishing is limited in the Beaufort Sea, native populations are dependent upon subsistence fishing.

Efforts to clean up the oil can also cause environmental damage. The burning of oil off the water’s surface releases nitrogen and sulfur into the atmosphere, which in turn can cause acid rain. This has serious implications for the Arctic as at present it is nearly untouched by such pollution. In addition, the use of booms to enclose the oil to be skimmed will also be difficult to use in Arctic waters due to the nature of high winds and waves, as skimming often works best in calm waters.

Additionally, oil spills may persist longer in the Arctic due to the extreme cold as oil takes longer to evaporate under such conditions and may become trapped under sea ice. The longer the oil is in the water, the greater the chance that sea mammals will come in contact with it. According to Oceans North, a campaign led by the Pew Environment Group, contact with oil will produce three outcomes: the inability to keep warm as oil reduces thermal properties in fur and feathers, toxic contamination from ingestion, and loss of food sources.

In a joint 2011 piece for the journal Nature, Jeffery Short and Oceana conservationist Susan Murray described the impact of Arctic weather conditions on the nature of an oil spill. They said, “Sea ice can envelop oil and transport it considerable distances. A blowout during autumn would spill among growing ice floes, spreading contamination further than it could be tracked and concentrating oil in the ice holes which marine mammals breathe.”

Short and Murray go on to add that, “it is sobering that each major marine oil production area in the United States has seen at least one catastrophic spill: the 1969 blowout of a a drilling rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California; the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska; and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The future of Arctic drilling

The environmental coalition claims it is not trying to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic right now. Rather, they are working towards ensuring that the Arctic Ocean is protected and that the government upholds environmental law.

Shell is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to determine a more appropriate classification for their containment barge to ensure that it can join the rest of the fleet in a timely manner.

In the spring, Shell filed a preemptive lawsuit against a dozen environmental organizations that it anticipated would attempt to stop the company from drilling in the Arctic after the release of its spill plan. The suit was a petition of acknowledgment from the United States government that both it and Shell had complied with federal law in the construction of and approval of the spill plan, and consideration was given to the fact that Shell has invested over $4 billion to date on the drilling project. Requests by the environmental groups for the dismissal of the case were rejected.

The New York Times reported that Marvin E. Odum, Shell’s President for the United States, stated at the time that the Obama administration supported Shell’s drilling program in the Arctic once all government requirements had been met.

Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith has also gone on to state via email to The New York Times that, “These [BSEE] approvals are a testament to the huge amount of time, technology and resources we have dedicated to an Arctic oil spill response fleet that is second to none in the world. If we were not absolutely confident that we could execute a responsible exploration program, we would not be here.”

The current lawsuit will not be litigated in time to affect drilling this summer and in fact, it may take years before any ruling is made. Since Shell has been given approval by the BSEE, it can continue with drilling operations unabated until any final decisions are made.

In 1989 after the Exxon Valdez spill, the Sierra Club’s then Executive Director Michael Fischer said, “Anger can be constructive, but only if we use its energy to undertake constructive tasks. Let us apply ourselves to protect our wild places, our last wild places, from ever being victims of another disaster.”

Frustration has arisen in part because, years later, calls like Fischer’s have not been met. Rather concerns have largely been addressed with reassurance and hopeful thinking. U.S Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said, “I believe there’s not going to be an oil spill.”

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