Shell hasn't earned enough trust to drill in Alaska's Arctic seas

Despite Royal Dutch Shell's disastrous performance during its 2012 Arctic Ocean drilling season, the federal government is on track to approve the company's exploratory drilling plan for the Arctic Ocean in 2015. The potential for another problem-filled drilling season is high.

The pressure on the federal government -- both the Department of the Interior and the US Coast Guard -- to approve drilling this summer is enormous, but the federal government needs to say no. Shell already has an armada of vessels on its way to Alaska, and has spent approximately $6 billion on Arctic Ocean drilling to date with little to show for it.

Let's recall what happened in 2012. Shell's botched towing operation after the drilling season put contractor and Coast Guard lives in serious peril when Shell's drilling rig, the Kulluk, lost its tow line; the rig later was a complete loss after it ran aground near Kodiak. Shell and its contractors let the drillship Noble Discoverer slip anchor and nearly run aground in Dutch Harbor en route to the Arctic. Shell's new oil-containment dome was "crushed like a beer can" during sea trials in calm waters in Washington state. Environmental and safety violations associated with the Noble Discoverer's operations led to millions of dollars in fines and eight felony guilty pleas for Shell's contractor.

Remarkably, Shell's 2015 exploration plan in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea provides significantly fewer protections for the Arctic Ocean than in 2012. In 2015:

  • No wells drilled would have a zero-discharge limit for contaminated drilling muds, compared to half the wells in 2012.
  • Shell would no longer recycle toxic drilling fluids.
  • Shell would test blowout preventers every 14 days instead of every seven.
  • Shell would meet only the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s weaker air-quality rules instead of following the more stringent rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The drilling plan would not contain critical habitat protections for polar bears.
  • Shell’s ice-management activities would double to two rigs in the Chukchi Sea, creating more activity and noise disturbances for nearby fish and marine mammals such as polar bears, walruses and seals.
  • Shell’s roundtrip flights to offshore sites would rise from 12 to up to 40 per week, creating more noise disturbances for wildlife, more air pollution, and more potential for accidents.
  • The risk of an oil spill affecting the sensitive western coastline of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would double with two rigs operating in the Chukchi.

To make matters worse, in 2015 Shell plans to use an unfamiliar drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer. This rig is operated by Transocean, the same contractor that operated BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, which released more than 200 million gallons of oil and killed 11 in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Use of the unfamiliar Polar Pioneer could result in new problems during drilling and mobilization/demobilization. Like the Kulluk, the rig is not self-propelled and would need towing under harsh Alaska conditions.

As for so-called cleanup if there were a major spill, Shell and other offshore operators have no technology for recovering meaningful amounts of spilled oil from icy, stormy seas. Additionally, Alaska's northern coast still lacks the infrastructure for launching and supporting a major response, and the nearest Coast Guard base remains about 1,000 miles away from the proposed drilling sites.

It is incorrect for Shell to say that in 2012, drilling operations went smoothly. Such a statement ignores the fact that drilling and mobilization/demobilization must be nearly flawless for there not to be serious problems in Alaska's harsh operational environment.


The same oil company that showed poor judgment and made many major technical mistakes in 2012 is asking us to trust it to protect the near-pristine, fragile and remote Arctic Ocean in 2015. With its history in 2012 and the problematic weakening of its drilling plan for the Chukchi Sea, Shell has not earned that trust.

The public relies on the federal government to protect our interests, not just those of a powerful company. Even if it feels strong pressure to do otherwise, the federal government would be justified in rejecting Shell's Arctic Ocean drilling plan for 2015.

Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.