Shell Doubles Down After Criminal Action

As Shell's operator pleads guilty for a 2012 drilling mess, the oil company is already gearing up to drill again with the same operator and an even bigger and dirtier drilling plan.

The Kulluk, one of Shell's oil drilling rigs  for the Arctic.
The Kulluk, one of Shell's oil drilling rigs for the Arctic. (James Mason for Earthjustice)

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Last week, the top Federal prosecutor in Alaska announced that Shell’s primary Arctic offshore oil drilling contractor, Noble Drilling, had pled guilty to committing eight felony offenses in connection with Shell’s botched attempts to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.  As its operator pleads guilty for the 2012 drilling mess, Shell is already gearing up to drill again with the same operator and an even bigger and dirtier drilling plan.

The operator will pay 12.2 million dollars for it crimes. In Noble’s plea agreement, it owned up to improperly discharging oily water into the ocean and covering up or neglecting to report a litany of engine and other system failures that it knew about even before it got to the Arctic Ocean. The news is another demonstration, if one was needed, that allowing offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean is a very bad idea. 

Unfortunately, more drilling may be coming. While the Department of the Interior is reconsidering Chukchi Lease Sale 193, which opened the Chukchi Sea to offshore oil and gas drilling, Shell has already submitted plans to start drilling again as early as 2015.

The Chukchi Sea is no place for this drilling. According to a draft government environmental report about the potential effects of oil development in the Chukchi Sea (a report prepared as a result of Earthjustice’s litigation success in the lease sale case), there is a 75% chance of one or more major spills if oil and gas development moves forward. 

The report describes how oil spills could forever change the region, with long-lasting effects on the people of the Arctic and marine mammals like polar bears, walruses, seals, whales and sea-birds.  There is also no effective way to clean up a spill in the frozen, stormy and remote Arctic Ocean, as a recent National Academy of Sciences report makes clear. One misstep could lead to disaster.

The agency’s draft analysis demonstrates that even without oil spills—which are likely and would be devastating—large-scale industrial oil operations would disrupt these mammals. For example, seismic surveying could literally deafen animals. In addition the surveying, along with noise and disturbance from drilling and associated vessel and aircraft traffic, could chase animals from feeding areas, which could be particularly harmful to mothers and calves of species like walruses and bowhead whales that spend their summers in the Chukchi Sea.

The sea is already under tremendous stress from climate change. This fall, some 35,000 walruses were forced ashore in a crowded coastal haul-out because of dramatic sea ice melt, placing them far from food sources and exposing mothers and calves to the risk of trampling from stampedes.  Drilling in the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean for more oil that will only further heat the planet adds climate insult to climate injury.

Shell’s disastrous 2012 program involving a drilling unit grounding, fires, investigations, pollution violations and criminal fines—not to mention other blunders—demonstrates that companies cannot operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean. 

But, there is some good news. The Department of the Interior is accepting comments through December 22 on its reconsideration of whether to open the Chukchi to drilling. For those wanting to weigh in, tell Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to say no to oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.  

As the deputy managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, Erik’s work focuses on protecting the Arctic’s irreplaceable federal lands, waters, and wildlife from oil development.

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.