I Spill Your Milkshake, or, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

by Travis Nichols

July 10, 2012

Today, Greenpeace and a coalition of environmental groups will file a lawsuit challenging the U.S. governments approval of Shells spill response plan in the Arctic. The suit alleges that Shells plan has not met the minimum legal standards to ensure the safety of the Arctic in the event of a spill, and that the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved Shells plan by relying on unbelievable assumptions put forward by the company rather than on actual research.

We have good reason for this challenge, in no small part because the administration charged with overseeing Arctic safety has parroted some of Shells most absurd PR in defense of this summers proposed drilling. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar boasted to the media two weeks ago that there is not going to be an oil spill, and that even if there were a spill–troubling caveat!– Shell has said it could clean up 90% of it.

So, you know, dont worry.

Salazar is an experienced politician with a long track record in government, so it was pretty embarrassing to hear him exaggerating an oil companys PR without doing wikipedia-level research. Had he asked a single expert, he would have learned that no sane person would ever claim to collect even 10% of a marine spill, let alone a spill in ice. He certainly would have been sure to avoid boasting that there wont be a spill. Why? Because this statement is completely at odds with the facts. Shell is one of the most accident prone oil companies of all time, and its record in places like Nigeria is simply appalling.

But dont take my word for it. NPRs Richard Harris sought out experts to cut through Shell and the governments Arctic spin and found retired Coast Guard Admiral Roger Rufe, who said:

Once oil is in the water, its a mess. And weve never proven anywhere in the world let alone in the ice that were very good at picking up more than 3 or 5 or 10 percent of the oil once its in the water.

Even Shell, when confronted with these claims, clarified Salazar’s boast, saying that its spill response plan will encounter–not recover or clean up– 95 percent of the oil out in the open water.

Shell spokesman Geoff Merrell, in what may be the understatement of the summer, told Harris: Because the on-scene conditions can be so variable, it would be rather ridiculous of us to make any kind of performance guarantee.


So, if the experts agree that Shells plan is ludicrous, and Shell agrees that its plan is ridiculous, how did it get through the BSEE at light speed? Is the agency naive, or are they complicit?

The coalition’s lawsuit contends that BSEE violated the law when it approved spill response plans that do not describe all available spill response resources. For example: Shell has publicly touted its Arctic containment system, but the spill plans approved by BSEE not only do not include that system, but they also fail to explain why Shell expects any untested system to work in the Arctic Ocean. Nor has the agency ensured that the company is prepared for a late season spill that could continue unabated through the winter.

Since this summers longer ice cover will give the sun less time to warm Arctic water, it could speed the return of ice in the early fall. This would mean October ice could close in and shut down even the best spill response, leaving a blowout uncontrolled for eight or more months.

Thats a long time to be looking at something like this.

BSEE also signed off on the response plans without a basic understanding of the consequences of the spill response choices Shell made. The agency never considered the effects of Shells proposal to apply toxic dispersants in the Arctic Ocean in the event of a spill, the same dispersants that continue to affect the Gulf two years after the BP Disaster–just today ABC News reported that the rates of dolphin and sea turtle deaths have risen to highly unusual levels in the Gulf of Mexico as the dispersants have moved up the food chain.

But I guess if you’re so confident that a company with a terrible safety record doing rickety industrial work in one of the most remote and perilous places on earth won’t mess up, then you probably don’t think said company’s spill response plan needs that close of a look.

But then you’d be nuts.

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