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Shell dismisses the risk of a blowout in Alaska, just like BP did in the Gulf

by Melanie Duchin

May 14, 2010

As BP’s oil continues to spew unabated into the Gulf of Mexico, Shell continues to push forward with plans for exploratory drilling off Alaska’s Arctic coast. If Shell gets its way, it will begin exploratory drilling in July in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, home to polar bears, walrus, whales, seals and other distinctive Arctic species, as well as communities who have relied on these animals and the environment for their culture and subsistence for millenia.

Greenpeace: The cost of offshore drillingShell is scrambling to show that its plans are nothing like BP’s. Shell’s 2010 Exploration Plan for the Chukchi Sea states, "a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.” Shell dismisses the risk of a blowout, just like BP’s 2009 Exploration Plan downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident with the Deepwater Horizon, suggesting that it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur. Yet 11 workers were killed and oil has been gushing from the well for more than three weeks, with no end in sight.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig was built in 2001 and heralded as state-of-the-art, ushering in a new era of exploratory drilling. In comparison, Shell plans to use a drill ship built in 1966, when Lyndon Johnson was president. Clearly, the risk of a blowout during exploratory drilling are very real, despite what BP and Shell say.

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill is in a temperate part of the country with substantial oil spill response infrastructure nearby. Yet BP’s spill response has been hampered by weather — choppy seas, wind, etc — and “cleanup” in open water has been limited to burning patches of oil or spraying toxic dispersants which merely break the oil into smaller pieces where it can still Greenpeace: Oil spill burn in Gulf of Mexicodo damage to the marine ecosystem, not to mention the toxic impacts of dispersants on marine life.

To be blunt, the Deepwater Horizon demonstrates that it’s difficult to respond to an oil spill of this magnitude in the Gulf of Mexico, and “cleaning it up,” actually removing the oil from the environment, is impossible. On a good day, only 10-15 percent of spilled oil is actually removed from the environment. Estimates for BP’s spill in the Gulf are a fraction of that.

Now take the scenario of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and superimpose it where Shell wants to drill in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These seas are in the Arctic, where “summer” means temperatures hovering in the 40s, gale-force winds, week-long storms and heavy fog that restricts visibility. Sea ice is also a factor, in fact, Shell’s fleet of seven ships for Chukchi and Beaufort exploratory drilling includes an icebreaker. Some of the wells in the Chukchi Sea are up to 140 miles from shore. Most importantly, oil spill response capacity in this remote part of the world is a tiny fraction of what exists in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil spill “clean up” in Arctic waters is impossible.

The last time the oil industry conducted an oil spill response test in Alaska was back in 2000, off Prudhoe Bay in the Beaufort Sea. I observed the mock test from one of industry’s barges and a smaller response boat. Sea ice prevented the smaller boats from even leaving the dock, the test was a failure, and Alaksa state regulators acknowledged that. However, that was the last time the state required an oil company to test its equipment in a mock, open-water oil spill on the North Slope of Alaska where Shell plans to conduct exploratory drilling this summer.

Shell and the rest of the oil industry will say that oil spill response and “clean up” technologies have advanced since then, that they can deal with an oil spill in the Arctic, but don’t believe it. They rely on field tests where relatively small amounts of oil are released in controlled environments and then extrapolate from there. Moreover, none of their studies are peer-reviewed. The US Coast Guard calls an oil spill in the Arctic its “nightmare scenario,” and with good reason. As difficult as it is to respond to an oil spill in the temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico, responding to an oil spill is fraught with problems in the Arctic, and “clean up”  is impossible.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill have already taken the lives of eleven people and caused as-of-yet uncalculated damage to the people, economy and environment of the Gulf. We can only hope that the horrible loss and damage from BP’s disaster is the turning point for US energy policy so that Alaska’s pristine Chukchi and Beaufort seas are protected from Shell’s drilling and spilling.

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