Skip to main content

Shell Oil Living in a Land of Make Believe

Apparently, Shell Oil and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) live in a land of make believe. Thankfully, Earthjustice makes its abode in a place called reality.

Apparently, Shell Oil and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) live in a land of make believe. Thankfully, Earthjustice makes its abode in a place called reality.

Earlier this month, BOEMRE approved Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill for oil next summer in the Alaskan Arctic’s Beaufort Sea. Putting the sled in front of the dog team, BOEMRE approved Shell’s risky drilling plan before ensuring the company had a realistic oil spill response plan. Shell’s current oil spill plan would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so dire.

Shell claims that it will be able to clean up 95 percent of an oil spill with booms and skimmers if one were to occur in the Arctic’s remote, icy waters. Never mind that only 8 percent of the oil after the Exxon Valdez spill and only 3 percent of the oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill was captured and removed from the ocean using skimmers and booms. Never mind that 23 hours of darkness, 20-foot swells and widow-maker chunks of ice riding wave crests are par for the course in the Beaufort Sea. Yep, 95 percent, piece of cake.

Fortunately, Earthjustice is not going along with the charade.

Since BOEMRE’s Aug. 5 decision to green-light Shell’s exploration drilling plan, Earthjustice attorneys have been analyzing the agency’s decision and working with the Department of the Interior to persuade it to make more responsible decisions concerning other permits Shell needs before it can drill in 2012, including realistic plans to respond to an oil spill.

“The only good news about BOEMRE’s decision to approve Shell’s drilling is that this approval is conditional,” explains Erik Grafe, an attorney in Earthjustice’s Alaska Office. “Shell still has to get all the other permits it needs, and one of those is approval of its oil spill response plan. The spill response plan Shell has submitted is totally inadequate. It is based on very unrealistic assumptions about its ability to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. The fact is, there simply is no way to adequately respond to an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea—it is too remote, icy, stormy, dark, and foggy. Shell’s plan needs to acknowledge the difficulties of the region, not assume them away.”

Earthjustice and its clients continue to communicate with BOEMRE and other government officials to advocate for an in-depth, serious analysis of Shell’s drilling plans. In addition to its oil spill response plan, the company must also gain approval of permits to harass whales, seals, walrus, and other mammals pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Shell’s planned drilling is directly in the fall migration path of endangered bowhead whales and could block the whales from reaching an important feeding and resting area. Shell estimates that close to 5,600 migrating bowhead whales, almost half the population, could be exposed to sound and disturbance from the drilling and icebreaking that could cause them to change their behavior and avoid the feeding area. This could harm the population, particularly mothers and young calves, and could affect Alaska Native communities that rely on the bowhead whale and other species to sustain their subsistence way of life.

There is no official timeline for approval of the outstanding permits, but Shell will likely submit various permit applications throughout fall and winter 2011.

“This was a really bad decision by BOEMRE, but this isn’t a done deal,” Grafe says. “We’re hard at work trying to convince the agency to go slow and not let Shell drill until it has a realistic spill response plan and until the government takes a hard look at the risks and environmental effects of Shell’s drilling plans. We’ll be very vigilant in watch-dogging the situation and making sure Shell does not start drilling without the necessary environmental protections in place.”