Mass of sea ice forces drilling to halt, raises doubts about spill cleanup
Chukchi Sea, Alaska. (Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com)
Shell’s vice president of Alaska operations was quoted last Saturday as saying "Happy, happy, happy." Then the ice showed up.
Hours after Shell began drilling in the Artic, operations were forced to shut down to accommodate a drifting 30-mile by 12-mile hunk of sea ice, moving at a rate of a mile every 30 minutes. That’s what ice does in the Arctic—it is unpredictable, unforgiving and moves in with the high winds just in time to ruin a happy day.
A week ago, the Department of the Interior approved drilling in “non-oil-bearing zones” and Shell immediately began drilling its first exploration well in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Northern Alaska in the early morning hours of Sunday. The drilling lasted only a few hours before the company took a “precautionary” move and disconnected the drilling rig from the seafloor anchors and temporarily moved the vessel off the well site. One wonders what would happen if such an ice mass moved in while Shell was trying to respond to a major oil spill.
The window for Shell to strike oil this season is rapidly closing as Shell is approved only until Sept. 24 for drilling into the oil-bearing zones. The company has asked for an 18-day extension but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that extension decisions won’t happen until after the final permits to drill deeper have been issued.
Drilling deeper this year has not been possible so far because of challenges with the Arctic Challenger, the oil spill response and containment barge, which had been undergoing retrofitting and testing in Washington State for months. Until Shell gets Coast Guard and various agency approvals of this vessel and moves it in place in the Arctic, Shell can’t drill for oil.
The Arctic Challenger left Bellingham, Washington in the middle of the night last week and hasn’t been seen since. Sea testing? On its way to the Arctic while undergoing sea testing? We don’t really know, even though the administration and Shell both promised the communities of the Arctic and the rest of us—transparency.
The latest government approvals to Shell’s ever-changing set of standards, specifically the air pollution and sea-worthiness of vessels, have been made without any public process and in some cases the official documents have only been released to the public after repeated requests. The public has yet to see Shell’s official request to extend the drilling season. That’s about as transparent as the gooey waters of an oil spill.
Earthjustice continues to represent its clients in challenging flawed and unlawful oil-spill response plans, air pollution permits and leases. Our aim remains to protect the pristine American Arctic waters from harmful industrial activities in the short term with a long-term focus of conservation based on best available science.
The implications of a failed Arctic ecosystem will affect us all through the rapid effects of climate change. And there’s nothing “happy, happy, happy” about that.