As Alaskans usher in a new year, the calm streets of downtown Anchorage belie a major drama unfolding in the city's Marriott Hotel. There, 250 federal and state agency officials and Shell Oil representatives have hastily assembled to face yet another series of failures by the oil company, events that have endangered human lives and America's most productive and pristine marine environments.
On Dec. 31, Shell's drill rig Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island -- near Kodiak Island -- after repeated failures to tow it in rough seas from Dutch Harbor to Seattle. The Kulluk was one of two drilling vessels deployed for a short fall season of drilling in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The incident -- the latest problem plaguing Shell's Arctic drilling efforts in 2012 -- began on Dec. 27 when the Kulluk lost its towline to the tug boat Aiviq. The towline was reattached but according to the US Coast Guard, the Aiviq "subsequently experienced total engine failure casting both Aiviq and Kulluk adrift in the heavy seas and strong winds." Multiple efforts to safely tow the Kulluk failed and it ultimately grounded on Monday night.
Despite the presence of the billion-dollar armada of Shell vessels in Alaska, the company must rely on the scantly resourced yet deeply experienced US Coast Guard. The drama at sea shows how even "routine" operations such as moving drilling rigs can threaten the lives and livelihoods of industry personnel, rescue crews, coastal residents, rich wildlife populations and productive fisheries that feed millions of people around the world. The response effort - the largest ever launched in Alaska, according to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation - was stymied by stormy seas and gale force winds.
This inability to quickly and adequately respond to emergencies because of extreme environmental conditions is called the "response gap," a concept which World Wildlife Fund has highlighted repeatedly as the barrier to safe offshore oil development in the Arctic.
What's more, the same climate changes that are opening up the Arctic by melting sea ice are also increasing storm activity in the region. To allow drilling in the Arctic at all was a big mistake, with potential consequences far more costly than the Kulluk fiasco. In Alaska, weather conditions and the sea state -- from the Arctic to the Gulf of Alaska and especially the Bering Sea -- frequently exceed the conditions the Kulluk experienced last weekend. Anybody who watches "Deadliest Catch" knows that.
Last year in Alaska, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior David Hayes announced that "any approved [offshore oil development] activities will be held to the highest environmental protection standards." Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar promised to hold Shell's "feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set, and to make sure that the environment and the Arctic seas are protected."
In our book, high standards include having failsafe towing and handling vessels, and a drill ship that has not been fined for violations, as Shell's equipment has been. Sensitive marine cultural and ecological areas must be safeguarded; and full transparency and participation in the decision-making process are needed. The administration's green light to allow Shell to conduct initial exploratory activities last year sets a poor precedent in the administration's so-called commitment to the "highest standards."
Arctic leaders must now take another close look at these failures. After many unwarranted public assertions that it was ready for all contingencies in the Arctic, Shell has demonstrated yet again that this is hardly the case. Thankfully there has been neither loss of life nor, as of yet, documented environmental damage. However, we have come too close to be sanguine about going forward in 2013 without a complete review and revised permitting process.
Let's hope 2013 ushers in a new era of environmental stewardship in the Arctic - an era where the "highest standards" become reality, not merely a promise, when it comes to oil development in this precious and unique region.
Margaret Williams is the managing director of World Wildlife Fund's U.S. Arctic field program.