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Gulf Deep Water Oil Drilling Challenge

Case Overview

A spill at Shell’s proposed drilling site, 72 miles off the Louisiana coast, could yield 400,000 barrels of oil a day, more than six times the amount spilled in the BP disaster.
Above: Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire ('in situ burn') in the Gulf of Mexico on May 6, 2010. (U.S. Navy Photo / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg/Released)

Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Florida Wildlife Federation in challenging the federal government’s flawed environmental risk assessment of Shell Oil Company’s plan to drill for oil in deep Gulf of Mexico water near the site of BP’s catastrophic 2010 well blowout. The suit alleges that the government’s calculations grossly understate the blow-out risk and that Shell’s drilling plan places communities at risk of another major oil spill along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts.

The federal agency has based its analysis on a 1-in-4000 chance oil spill risk scenario even though industry documents show the chance of a major spill at 1-in-43. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) approved Shell’s plan after concluding that “an accidental spill event is not very likely to occur,” but BOEMRE’s oil spill risk calculations are in error and understate risks by ignore relevant risk factors well known in the industry. Among other things, BOEMRE bases its total risk calculations on the experience of drilling in shallow waters—which have a very low blow-out risk—rather than on the ultra-deep water high pressure formations that have a very high blow-out risk. The Shell plan is in the deep waters where the BP spill occurred and Shell now plans to drill.

A review of Shell’s plan shows that a spill at the company’s proposed drilling site, 72 miles off the Louisiana coast, could yield 400,000 barrels of oil a day, more than six times the amount spilled in the BP disaster. In addition, Shell’s exploration plan anticipates the company using the same type of “blowout preventer” that failed at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well last summer. Shell’s plan says the company is prepared to deal with an uncontrolled blowout because it is a founding member of the Marine Well Containment Company (“MWCC”) and will have access to an integrated subsea well control and containment system that can be rapidly deployed. However, the MWCC does not expect to have its system in place and ready to be deployed until 2012, long after Shell expects to begin drilling.

Case Updates

April 3, 2013 | Blog Post

Going to Extremes is Bad Energy Policy

Just as clean, renewable energy is lifting off and the impacts of climate disruption become ever more visible, fossil energy production is becoming dramatically more extreme. But extreme fossil energy production is exactly what we don’t need.

July 6, 2012 | Blog Post

Protecting the Arctic by Doing Their Job

Many Americans used a Wednesday Fourth of July as an excuse to take the entire week off as a holiday. Here’s a patriotic tale of two examples of those who didn’t and we thank them for it.

June 15, 2012 | Blog Post

Arctic Drilling Fleet Poised To Sail

As I write this, ships are being prepared to steam northward from several ports to begin poking holes in the floor of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in search of oil.

Thanks to legal action by Earthjustice over the last few years, and thanks also to a one-year time-out called in the wake of the catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the drilling has been forestalled, but it could finally begin this July. Legal challenges are still pending, but the odds seem long against them.

That said, this is closer to the beginning of this struggle than to its end.

February 9, 2012 | Blog Post

Obama 'Promise' Keeps Arctic Drilling On Table

On backing down, backing away, and backing into a corner . . .

President Obama’s statement, “I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago,” was one the more awkward sentences in his State of the Union speech, and not just syntactically.

December 12, 2011 | Blog Post

Dear Obama: How Could You Approve Drilling in Arctic Ocean?

It’s not easy to get the President’s attention. He’s a busy guy, and despite sending him thousands of comment letters and making hundreds of phone calls, he just doesn’t seem to understand that Americans don’t want oil drilling in the fragile waters of the Arctic Ocean. These waters are home to polar bears, walrus, bowhead whales and other endangered species. They provide bounty for Native subsistence communities. A spill in these waters would be an environmental disaster unlike any other.