Recent Mishaps Raise Doubts About Arctic Drilling Safety

Note: This is a guest post from Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Groupís U.S. Arctic Program.

Oil industry plans to drill exploratory wells in America’s Arctic Ocean got off to an inauspicious start recently, when a Shell Oil Co. drilling ship slipped anchor and drifted perilously close to the beach at Alaska’s Dutch Harbor. A tugboat pulled the massive rig back into place, and the U.S. Coast Guard is investigating.

The mishap — along with a series of other troubling setbacks — raises a question that some of us have been asking for the past year: are we really ready to drill in such a remote and risky setting?

Arctic conditions are among the most extreme on Earth, including hurricane-force winds, high seas, impenetrable fog and shifting sea ice. Preventing an accident in such conditions is going to be far more challenging than anchoring a rig in the 35 mph winds and 4 foot seas reported in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, during the recent incident. If there is a spill in the Arctic, just getting people and equipment to such a remote location will be daunting: Dutch Harbor, 1,000 miles south of the proposed drilling site, is the nearest major port. And even then, there is no proven method of cleaning up oil in broken ice.

Fears of an oil spill have been countered by promises of robust prevention and cleanup efforts, as part of a bid to drill up to 10 exploratory wells this summer and next. But recent troubles beyond the near-grounding incident do not inspire confidence.

For instance, the Coast Guard delayed certifying the effectiveness and safety of such basic equipment as an oil-containment barge. Even at this late date, the Coast Guard has had to insist on fixes to the barge’s electrical, piping and fire-protection systems.

More worrisome still was a request that the Coast Guard lower the structural standards it had originally approved for the barge aptly named Arctic Challenger, from being able to withstand a “100-year storm” to a 10-year storm. If ever there was a place where preparing for the worst is prudent, it’s the Arctic.

Similarly, the federal government was asked to consider relaxing the drilling rig’s air emission requirements because not all of them can be met.

These last-minute changes are why we need Arctic-specific standards that are written into regulations, not negotiated on an ad hoc basis and subject to change from project to project or well to well. We need rules backed up by laws that will be in effect longer than one drilling season. And we need measures that can stand up to tough Arctic conditions such as this year’s unusually thick sea ice, which is wreaking havoc on drilling schedules and showing how unpredictable this region can be.

The recent near-grounding is a jolting reminder of just what’s at stake. The Arctic Ocean is home to bowhead whales, walruses, polar bears, and other marine mammals found nowhere else in America’s waters, as well as to millions of migratory birds. This unique ecosystem is central to the diet and culture of indigenous communities that have depended on its bounty for thousands of years.

We need the toughest standards to ensure that, if development takes place, this vital habitat and vibrant culture are safe from oil spills and other harmful impacts. But judging from the failures of planning and execution seen to date, we’re not there yet.


Related Stories:

Infographic: A Day In The Life Of Big Oil

Shell’s First Accident Occurs En Route to Arctic Drilling

Pozzlies, Grizzpos? What to Call the Hybrid Bears?



Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle6 years ago

DUH, DUH, AND DUH. Everything is fine until it isn't. We had a disaster in the warm Gulf -- what are the chances of recovering oil in the cold, choppy seas of the Arctic?! It's too risky. Has everyone forgotten Exxon?

Nina Abernathy6 years ago

Oh yeah. Promises of "robust" prevention and cleanup efforts. It's all just talk. BP said the same thing knowing the oil rig that blew had serious problems. Shell does not care about cleanup, safety, the environment of wildlife. These oil companies nare purely lazy and negligent. Look at BP & Exxon Valdez. Shell cares about one When another disaster happens it will be " ah well...we thought we had that covered. Ah yea this is truely unfortunate..." Make them responsible. This is our planet and our wildlife that's at stake. Ignorance is not an excuse. They need to be held accountable.

Marianne B.
Marianne B6 years ago

Seems Shell Oil does not care about preserving or saving ANY waters, or lives, land and sea. Pure greed.

federico bortoletto

Grazie per l'articolo.

Anna M.
Anna M6 years ago

Chief Seattle, 1854
Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.

Cree Prophecy:
When all the trees have been cut down,
When all the animals have been hunted,
When all the waters are polluted,
When all the air is unsafe to breathe,
Only then will you discover
You cannot eat money.

Anita Wisch
Anita Wisch6 years ago

Losing jobs if we stop drilling in the Artic?

Let's put anyone to work who wants to help the U.S. get on board with green energy. We have many jobs that would open up, if we would just pursue wind and solar.

Starr Romano
Sandra Romano6 years ago

Christine-yes, we are that greedy. The question remains, how do we stop it? If we stop the drilling, there will be those who say we are blocking American jobs. Environmentalists, or just folks who want to preserve our Earth are seen as extremists? It's all very unsettling.

Kate Bates
Kathleen B6 years ago

These oil companies are gung ho to drill, anticipating ever larger profits, but not taking their responsibility to do no damage to the marine life and pristine environment seriously. We need to aggressively monitor their presence, especially in view of the ecological impact on the Arctic. The risks involve the entire human community, not just the oil companies' bottom line.

Deborah F.
Deborah F6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Kimberly Simms
Kimberly S6 years ago

Of course we're not ready to drill in risky areas. Or any areas. We're treating the symptom, not the cause. We need to invest ourselves in clean, sustainable energy and leave the oil in the ground where it belongs. It's time to evolve.