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Shell's Drill Rigs Requiring Extra Federal Attention

With one Arctic drill rig shipwrecked on an Alaskan island and the other reportedly under criminal investigation for possibly “operating with serious safety and pollution control problems,” oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is doing a pretty thorough job at proving the quest for oil in the pristine waters of America’s Arctic is just too dangerous, too dirty, and too damaging. The week’s events also prove once again that the U.S. Department of Interior should not have approved drilling in the most remote, dangerous place on the planet. It’s past time for the plug to be pulled on this operation.

The cone-shaped drill rig Kulluk sat in 30 to 40 feet of water along the rocky beach of Sitkalidak Island for the entire week and 18 crew members were evacuated by U.S Coast Guard helicopters. A cast of more than 500 salvage experts is working feverishly to stabilize and rescue the rig.  Further, after delays leaving the Arctic Ocean as winter closed in, Shell reported made its decision to move the rig, which does not have a propulsion system and requires towboats to haul it around, from the port of Dutch Harbor south of Alaska to avoid having to pay Alaska state taxes.

Noble Discoverer, being towed away from land in Dutch Harbor, AK, in July 2012. (Kristjan Laxfoss)

On Friday, CBS News reported that Shell's other Arctic drilling vessel, the 572-foot oil drilling and exploration ship Noble Discoverer is at the center of a criminal investigation.

The 47-year-old converted logging ship, which Shell used to conduct its preparatory work this summer for wells it hopes to drill in the Chukchi Sea, has been cited for dozens of safety and pollution control violations over of the last several months and came dangerously close to running aground near Dutch Harbor in July.

Waves crash over the conical drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, AK, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.)

The Kulluk situation we’re witnessing off the coast of Alaska would be many times worse above the Arctic Circle, where the oil industry wants to drill for oil. The Arctic Ocean is among the harshest, most challenging environments in the world. It is frozen solid for up to nine months of the year, is a very remote area more than 1000 miles from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station, and has extended periods of darkness and hurricane force storms. If there is an accident it would likely be impossible to respond safely or effectively. As Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said this week: "Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies."

At a time when Americans are embracing renewable energy and innovation and are ready to fight climate change, we can do better than to exploit extreme oil from the Arctic Ocean and threaten to coat the Arctic with an oil spill that would forever damage it.

After Deepwater Horizon, President Obama committed to providing the country a rational energy policy that meets our legitimate needs and sets a model for the rest of the world. We’re getting there. Fuel efficiency is reducing our demand for oil. Americans are embracing renewable sources of energy and are ready to fight climate change.  It is time for President Obama to call for a halt to offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and reassess whether drilling should occur in this pristine region.

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