Shell’s Arctic gamble

The proposal by Shell Alaska to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas of the Arctic sounded from the start like a dangerous environmental prospect in a particularly fragile ecosystem. The weather provides only a brief window of opportunity for oil exploration before winter ice makes it too hazardous. Booms and skimmers, the traditional methods of containing an oil spill on the water’s surface, are much less effective in those choppy, ice-flecked seas, and the usual emergency support — equipment, docks and Coast Guard vessels — are far away.

The Obama administration nevertheless approved the proposal after Shell developed an elaborate set of safeguards, including stronger well-drilling standards and the addition of a second rig nearby that could drill a relief well if there were a blowout. Shell also outfitted a barge with equipment designed to cap a spill at the bottom of the sea. Yet a lawsuit filed Tuesday by a coalition of environmental groups correctly claims that the spill response plan is inadequate.

The biggest problem is that the U.S. Interior Department wrongly accepted a key assertion by Shell: that the company would recapture 90% of the oil released by any spill. That’s a wildly optimistic number, never achieved in a major oil spill, even in much calmer waters than the Arctic’s.

VIDEO: Alaska reaction to arctic drilling


Once that assumption is removed, it becomes obvious that the rest of the response plan is inadequate for keeping oil from reaching shore and key wildlife areas, especially considering that Shell is offering little besides traditional methods that have been shown to work poorly in the area where the exploration would take place. In addition, tests of the newer technologies have not been conducted in the harsh environment of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard has refused to certify the barge without various fixes, and though Shell is moving ahead with those, it also is asking the government to soften the standard for the weather conditions the barge must be able to endure.

It’s unclear whether drilling for oil in pristine Arctic seas will ever be an environmentally safe option; what does seem clear is that neither Shell nor the government has taken the necessary steps to assure the public that a catastrophe can be avoided. The 90% recovery figure is simply unacceptable. And there can be no softening of safety requirements for equipment heading to this remote area, 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base.

Shell is understandably anxious to get underway, before pack ice that forms in September and October makes it impossible to drill. But the pressure of time is no excuse for drilling with inadequate protections.