A History of Screw-Ups and Its Own Plans Raise Doubts About Shell’s Ability to Drill Safely in the Arctic

by Tim Donaghy

May 12, 2015

BOEM has approved Shell's Exploration Plan, putting into motion the largest and dirtiest oil exploration campaign ever carried out in the U.S. Arctic.

Greenpeace ice class ship Esperanza tracking Shell's oil rig the Polar Pioneer on its way to drill in the Alaskan Arctic this summer in transit across the Pacific on board the heavy lift vessel Blue Marlin. Six people from around the world are tailing Shell's Arctic oil rig across the Pacific on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza. As ambassadors of a movement of millions, the six men and women want to expose Shell's reckless plans to drill in the remote Chukchi Sea in the Alaskan Arctic. The Esperanza has been tracking Shell's monstrous oil rig the Polar Pioneer since it left Brunei Bay in Malaysia.

© Vincenzo Floramo / Greenpeace

Cross-posted from EnergyDesk.

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has conditionally approved Shells Exploration Plan (EP), putting into motion the largest and dirtiest oil exploration campaign ever carried out in the US Arctic. The plan involves big increases in water discharges, air pollution, ship activity, and harassment of protected marine mammals.

And thats if nothing goes wrong.

Shells plan calls for two drilling rigs working close to one another in the Chukchi Sea. The two rigs are headed to the Port of Seattle, where Shell has faced fierce opposition by everyone from the Mayor to a flotilla of kayaktivists.

The rigs will be supported by a fleet of aircraft and support vessels, including tugs, oil spill response barges and icebreakers.

History of screw-ups

The first drilling rig is the Noble Discoverer, which in 2012 suffered through a long string of violations, screw-ups and near mishaps during Shells last attempt at Arctic drilling. The Discoverer nearly ran aground in an Alaskan harbor, and was later found to have violated numerous safety and environmental regulations, leading to eight felony convictions and a $12 million fine for Shells contractor, Noble.

Some of those violations concerned a non-functioning oily waste separator, designed to prevent discharge of pollution into the ocean. Surprisingly, a recent US Coast Guard inspection found the equipment still not functioning though it was eventually fixed.

The second rig is the Polar Pioneer (shown at the top), which replaces Shells previous rig, the Kulluk (shown below), which was destroyed after running aground in a winter storm in late 2012.

Kulluk Drill Rig Runs Aground in Alaska

This history of accidents raises serious questions about the ability of Shell or any oil company to safely drill in the Arctic.

A major spill would be catastrophic for an Arctic marine ecosystem that is already reeling from rapid climate change. A spill would lead to both an initial wave of animal deaths as well as effects that could linger for decades.

Rosy assumptions for spill scenario

Far from being a remote possibility, BOEM itself has estimated that there is a 75% chance of a large oil spill during the lifetime of Shells leases.

Unfortunately, Shells EP and associated oil spill response plan (OSRP) do little to assuage these concerns. Recent studies have shown that Arctic wind, wave, ice and visibility conditions would make it impossible to deploy oil spill response tactics for a significant fraction of the time, even in summer months.

Rather than addressing this objection head-on, Shell relies on several rosy assumptions in its plan. For example, the OSRP assumes that 95% of the oil from a major oil spill would be captured by offshore recovery efforts before it approaches the Alaskan coastline. Typical recovery rates, even in less challenging environments, are rarely higher than 20%. Shell also assumes that it will have six days to move shoreline resources into position, whereas BOEM estimates that oil could reach land as early as three days.

The scenario that should keep government regulators up at night is a well blowout late in the drilling season, where a relief well must be drilled to stop the spill before the winter ice freeze-up occurs.

Shells plan includes a discussion of such a scenario, but likewise neglects to consider what might happen if freeze-up happens sooner, or if the relief well takes longer, than estimated. In all of these cases Shell fails to analyze the robustness of their plans to changes in assumptions, making it difficult to truly assess the risks involved.

Pollution plans

But even apart from a worst-case scenario, if BOEM approves the exploration plan, the general increase in industrial activity will lead to greater water, air and acoustic pollution in the Chukchi.

Although Shell had previously agreed to a zero discharge policy when drilling in the Beaufort Sea in 2012, their current plan calls for the discharge of thousands of barrels of drilling muds, cuttings and other waste directly into the ocean. These wastes can contain heavy metals and toxins and can damage benthic communities which form important links in the Arctic marine food web. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission recently criticized Shell for this policy.

Shell clearly has the technical ability to implement a zero discharge policy and it could be required by BOEM as a condition of approving the exploration plan.

The exploration plan estimates that the total air pollution emitted by this fleet will be greater than in 2012, when Shells fleet was found to be in violation of its air permit. Among the pollutants emitted by these operations are nitrogen oxides, which has been linked to respiratory problems, and fine particulate matter, which increases the risk of premature death among people with existing health problems.

Black carbon, which is a component of particulate matter, also increases the rate of local warming by decreasing the amount of sunlight that is reflected by snow or ice.

In addition, a recent Nature study confirmed that Arctic oil reserves are unburnable if we are to have a chance at limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Impact on Arctic species

Shells drill sites lie directly adjacent to Hanna Shoal, a critical walrus habitat and biodiversity hotspot. Shells own oil spill modeling shows a potential oil spill trajectory heading toward Wrangel Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is prime denning habitat for polar bears and home to a large population of Pacific walrus (see map below).


Oil spill modeling conducted by Shell shows the extent of a worst case discharge oil spill after 30 days.

Drilling activities, icebreaking and seismic testing all create loud disturbances that have the potential to harass wildlife. Whales, walruses, polar bears and other species can be harmed directly by seismic testing or may alter their feeding or migration patterns to avoid disturbances. Shell estimates that its activities will harass thousands of beluga, bowhead and gray whales a significant fraction of the local populations.

Given that many of these populations are already listed as endangered or threatened, Shells activities may have an outsized impact on them.

Should Shell discover oil in the Arctic, its clear that the planet cant afford to drill and burn it.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.