Point-counteroint: Kulluk grounding shows Shell not ready for Arctic

By SUSAN MURRAYJanuary 11, 2013 

Shell Oil Company is learning the hard way that Alaska's waters demand respect. Operating in the Arctic's remote and difficult conditions requires planning and attention to detail that Shell has not been willing or able to provide. It is well past time to end Shell's poorly designed and inadequately evaluated gamble in the Arctic. The Department of the Interior must not grant any further approvals and must send Shell out of the Arctic before they do even more serious harm to people and our environment.

The decision to tow the drill rig Kulluk in the middle of winter, and the rig's subsequent grounding near Kodiak Island is just the latest in a series of mistakes that Shell has made in its race to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Given their repeated problems, there is no excuse for the Department of the Interior to continue looking the other way. Federal regulators -- our representatives -- need to stand up for our interests and ensure that industrial activities like offshore oil drilling require companies to show that they can simultaneously protect our oceans. In this case, our government has failed by allowing an unprepared company to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

For reasons not yet clear, Shell chose to tow the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor during a time of year when storms are common. It is not yet known whether Shell considered additional precautions, or why it used nearly 150,000 gallons of fuel as ballast. However, we do know that this decision led to the Kulluk's grounding in harsh, though hardly unexpected, weather. The lives of crew and rescuers were put at risk, and substantial public resources have been--and will continue to be--expended in the rescue and salvage operation. The 266-foot drilling rig now sits in shallow water near sensitive habitats for endangered Steller sea lions, threatened Steller's eiders and threatened southwest sea otters, as well as near the mouths of several salmon streams.

The bravery and perseverance of rescue crews prevented any loss of life, and so far an environmental catastrophe has been avoided. Fortunately, equipment and personnel were on the scene quickly, as the accident happened less than 50 miles from the Coast Guard's primary Alaska base on Kodiak.

Ironically, if the Kulluk had been damaged while in the Beaufort Sea more than 1,000 miles away, those same personnel and equipment would have likely been dispatched, as the Kodiak base is the closest permanent station to Shell's drilling zone. Unfortunately, the response time would have been much longer, with unpredictable sea ice added to the equation.

The Kulluk accident was by no means an isolated incident. Shell has been unable to conduct any phase of its operations without substantial problems, including:

• Losing control of its drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, near Dutch Harbor and being cited for violating discharge and safety requirements.

• Struggling to test an oil spill containment dome, eventually damaging it during sea trials off the coast of Washington in calm seas.

• Admitting it could not meet basic Clean Air standards, then receiving a waiver from the government to pollute clean Arctic air.

• Backtracking on the commitment to clean up 95 percent of a major Arctic oil spill, asserting instead that it intended only to "encounter" spilled oil.

• Arguing with the Coast Guard about safety standards for its oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, which had lain dormant since the late 1990s.

Shell has long since used up its last chance, and we are out of excuses for allowing these activities to continue. How many more accidents do we need, and why would our government allow Shell to put human lives and our ocean resources at risk? The Kulluk grounding should be the last straw. The Department of the Interior should not allow Shell back to the Arctic Ocean. This is not just an isolated transit incident; it is yet another in a long line of problems for Shell, showing that the company is not ready or able to operate in Alaska's waters.


Susan Murray is the deputy vice president for the Pacific at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world's oceans. www.oceana.org.

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