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Stakes are too high with Arctic drilling, and Shell isn't ready

  • Author: Lois Epstein
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published January 21, 2015

Two years ago on New Year's Eve, Shell's Kulluk Arctic offshore drilling rig grounded near Kodiak Island. It was an industrial calamity heard around the world, including a cover story in the Jan. 4 issue of The New York Times magazine.

Between Shell's 2012 offshore drilling and mobilization problems and the federal government's difficulties in overseeing Arctic Ocean leasing as discussed below -- not to mention the recent dramatic drop in the price of oil -- it is becoming increasingly clear that Arctic Ocean drilling faces insurmountable hurdles, especially in 2015.

The George W. Bush administration's 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale environmental impact statement vastly underestimated the likely impacts of producing oil from the Chukchi, prompting a successful lawsuit filed by our organization and others. In response to the federal appeals court decision, the U.S. Interior Department re-analyzed the likely impacts of this lease sale and found that exploration, development, production and transportation of oil from the Chukchi would require far more wells, drilling rigs, platforms, vessels, pipelines and aircraft, with commensurately greater impacts. The Interior Department's re-analysis admitted the lease sale could result in major impacts to fish, birds, marine mammals and subsistence.

In its revised analysis, the department acknowledged there is a 75 percent chance of one or more large oil spills if the lease sale leads to oil production. That's a 75 percent chance of one or more spills of 42,000 gallons or more in these near-pristine waters that are home to polar bears, bowhead whales, fish and other species. Making matters worse, marine oil spill recovery rates are only in the single digits, percentage-wise.

The revised analysis has several serious problems, however. Critically, the federal government did not assess whether the bigger levels of impacts and risks warrant new approaches to the 2008 lease sale.

One new approach that should have been considered is "targeted leasing," which identifies smaller areas of industry interest to lease to minimize conflicts between oil and gas activities and the ocean's ecology. The department is considering a targeted approach for future leasing in the Arctic Ocean in a related decision, and there is no good reason it should not assess such an approach for this lease sale.

By basing its re-analysis on only the existing leases, the Interior Department has in effect conducted an analysis of the impacts of the lease sale already held in 2008. As more than 30 law professors pointed out in comments on the revised analysis, this after-the-fact analysis of an unlawful decision is in conflict with the National Environmental Policy Act. The impacts of a decision must be analyzed before the decision -- in this case, the decision to issue the leases -- is made.

Another problem with the re-analysis is that the risks from the mobilization of infrastructure to enable offshore drilling in the Arctic must be accounted for. As is clear from the grounding of the Kulluk, moving drilling rigs and other infrastructure to and from the Arctic Ocean without incident is both complex and critical to drilling success. Even though many of these mobilization risks are under the U.S. Coast Guard's jurisdiction, they need to be disclosed and quantified by the Interior Department. Despite Shell's 2012 debacle, the department did not sufficiently address mobilization risks.

Furthermore, the re-analysis failed to consider the climate change consequences of developing and using oil and gas from the Chukchi. A new study in the Jan. 8 issue of Nature shows that Arctic Ocean oil needs to remain beneath the seabed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change worldwide. Fixing these deficiencies in the re-analysis matters because only through a thorough understanding of the risks can informed decisions be made about whether and how to proceed with drilling. If this means that Shell must forego the 2015 drilling season, so be it.

There is no worse place in the world than the Arctic Ocean for the government and industry to be making rushed decisions. As Alaskans know all too well from the Exxon Valdez tragedy, the consequences of a large oil spill in a harsh, near-pristine environment are extremely serious, long-lasting, and cannot be fully remedied.

Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and 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, e-mail commentary(at)