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The Concerned: Does oil-spill response video live up to Shell's reputation?

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published December 16, 2011
TO: Royal Dutch Shell Plc
SUBJECT: New spill response animation

Dear Shell,

Man, if we The Concerned were in your shoes, we'd be getting antsy. It's been years since you started planning to drill exploratory wells offshore in Alaska's Arctic, and it looks like you're getting closer than ever after all the regulatory hoops, planning and legal objections. We're glad to see that you have a new animated video to inform and reassure the public about your action plan in the unlikely event something goes wrong during the exploration and oil ends up where it's not supposed to be. But we're concerned, as is our habit.

Given how long it has taken the project to progress to this point, we would understand if you're starting to get impatient. But now's not the time to hamstring the effort with a video that doesn't quite live up to the reputation you've developed as rational, experienced, risk-averse, cold-water offshore operators.

We're concerned about the remote possibility of an accident, sure, just as we know all sorts of other people are, including yourselves. But we're even more concerned that the animation you've released does a disservice to the plans you've developed and could end up causing more perception problems than it intends to prevent. So we The Concerned have a few notes for you in case the video in question is just a rough draft and there's still time to tweak it a little.

Gulf oil spill hangover

As we're certain you know, there has been a great deal of renewed public interest in oil drilling safety, well blow-out prevention, and oil spill clean-up lately, primarily because of the giant mess at BP's offshore Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. No matter how rare such an accident truly is, and no matter how different your Alaska project is from the Macondo, the effects are still rippling through the national consciousness.

We do think the video does a decent job of explaining that the offshore leases in Alaska's Arctic lie in comparatively shallow water, and a very good job explaining the various ships, skimmers and bouys that would be deployed in the event of a disaster. We also think it does a great job showing the new Nanuq, the support ship built expressly for the project. And we're reassured to learn that the spill response cooperative you've contracted, Alaska Clean Seas, has been operating across Alaska's North Slope since 1979.

We know that animations aren't photographs. And we know that you're just trying to boil down reams of technical jargon, government permit applications, and bulleted action items. But we're afraid that the video doesn't take into enough account the public's memory.

And that's why we're concerned. You're not BP, Halliburton and Transocean all bundled together, and the Arctic Ocean is not the Gulf of Mexico. Basically, the new video shows an operation that looks an awful lot like the response plan deployed by BP in the Gulf, minus the U.S. Coast Guard and private security contractors, of course.

Still learning how to clean up oil in water

First, we're concerned when you say that Alaska Clean Seas has "over 30 years experience recovering oil in Arctic waters." No doubt Alaska Clean Seas is experienced and knowledgeable, has a proven commitment to advancing oil recovery technology and tactics in the Arctic region, and it has been a part of operations on Alaska's North Slope for decades. But no company on earth has 30 years experience cleaning up actual oil spills in Arctic waters (knock on wood). We're not sure if you checked with Alaska Clean Seas about that claim, but you might want to.

As most of your critics note, a great fear about Arctic offshore oil exploration is that oil released in cold, icy water is more difficult to clean up than in warmer water. The technology to clean up spilled oil in icy, agitated seas still has a lot of room to improve, and the most advanced gear isn't commercial yet.

The animated water in your new video is as still as a bathtub and contains absolutely no ice. The oil is very well-behaved. We know that part of the video's purpose is to sketch a rudimentary idea of what would happen in the unlikely event of an accident, but we wonder how much more prepared people would be if a little more reality entered into your account. We can't help but wonder if the Macondo thing wouldn't have been such a big deal if the public were aware of a little more of the ugly truth: That oil spills are a nasty business, and no one ever wins when oil escapes.

At the very least, you might consider adding something to the segues between the depictions of response stages, something like, “If that measure to plug the leak fails, it's going to get ugly at the surface, and oil could start to escape even the best containment measures. But divers will immediately begin deploying...”

See? We'd all be in it together at that point. So just slight nods acknowledging that you know how bad the hypothetical event would be, and how badly you want to prevent it in the first place, could go a long way toward winning hearts and minds. In a post-Deepwater Horizon world, putting wallpaper over your worst fears doesn't work because your worst fears, though more informed, are also the public's worst fears.

We're not sure you remember the mad scramble when that Gulf of Mexico mess was still going on. But there was a great deal of live, underwater video sent directly to the Internet from the wellhead. Some of the most iconic images during that time were of a bent-over, cracked pipe and failed blow-out preventer leaking oil into the Gulf.

A tale of two videos

For what seemed like months, some of The Concerned stared at those video feeds. Which is why we were so surprised to see a bent, cracked pipe in the new video. The pipe there looks eerily similar to the broken Macondo pipe. We're not sure if it's meant to show a production pipe angled toward shore or something similar. Perhaps you were trying to be accurate and show the pipe as it would actually look after a disaster, but it's way too similar for our comfort. It juts out of the preventer and sprawls on the ocean floor just like the Macondo pipe, and a couple of the leaks even appear to be in roughly the same spots. You guys didn't get that part of the illustration from BP, did you?

Anyway, we're really glad you didn't mention a "junk shot" or a concrete dome top-hat cone-hose thing in the video because when BP tried those ideas in the Gulf, they became the subject of much derision and only worked so-so. Come to think of it, we should probably be thanking BP here because their disaster seemed to streamline response strategies. If it weren't for them, you probably wouldn't be taking all sorts of steps you are taking in case something gets really out of hand, not the least of which is building an extra blow-out preventer to keep at the ready on the North Slope.

And in the unlikely event that things get really out of hand and a relief well needs to be drilled, it's good to learn in the video that there's a rig in the Chukchi Sea capable of responding. But, we're really concerned about the video when it explains what happens if the hypothetical disaster gets so out of hand that it requires equipment and personnel from outside the greater North Slope. Nome, Anchorage and Valdez are far enough away from the Arctic Ocean. But Indonesia, the Gulf of Mexico, Europe and Africa? Really? At that point, it might be worth mentioning that there aren't any deep-water marine terminals on the North Slope capable of staging or storing the kind of big response assets you'd need if Pandora's cretaceous box yawned wide. Maybe the mention could serve as a friendly appeal for the North Slope Borough, state or federal governments to consider investing in such a project before the "Arctic oil rush" everyone's talking about gets off the ground.

That might also be a good time to mention the totally worst-case scenario, a blowout late in the drilling season plus an early freeze-up. But then, the video's already pretty long. Maybe you could have two versions.

At any rate, we hope you can use these notes to help refine the presentation. It's already really good, but it could be better, and we're concerned because your reputation is so much better than that video indicates. In fact, just last week, your CEO said that he doesn't let people who work for him take any needless risks to pursue profit or bonus money. We're afraid because it looks like the video production department doesn't operate by that principle.

Fingers crossed,

The Concerned

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