U.S.: Grounding of Shell drilling platform highlights dangers of Arctic Oil Drilling

Kulluk grounded on Kodiak Island: Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg/U.S. Coast GuardKulluk grounded on Kodiak Island: Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg/U.S. Coast GuardShell has plans for drilling several exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas area off the north coast of Alaska. The grounding of the Kulluk circular oil drilling ship on Sitkalidak Island while being towed in heavy seas must call into question whether safety measures by Shell and Coast Guard response capabilities are adequate to allow Arctic drilling to proceed.It now seems that Shell risked moving drill ship in storm to avoid paying millions in taxes, and their weather judgement to move the rig is questionable. Shell and the US Coast Guard have started salvage operations on the stranded drilling rig.

Initial approval for oil drilling by Shell Oil was given by the Obama administration in August 2012 despite opposition by numerous conservation groups and a petition of over a million US citizens. To preserve a safe climate based upon the simple climate maths of how much fossil fuels we can afford to burn, we need to Go Fossil Free through divestment, start taxing carbon and leave the oil reserves beneath the Arctic alone.

Related: Greenpeace - Save The Arctic | Sierra Club - Chill the Drills: Protect America's Arctic! | Center for Biological Diversity - Arctic Oil Development | Alaska Despatch - U.S.: Shell’s grounded drilling rig raises questions | DeSmogBlog - Shell’s Kulluk Rig Grounding Proves Folly of Arctic Oil Drilling, Again

Background: ClimateIMC July 2011 - Smears on integrity of Polar wildlife scientist a prelude to Arctic Oil Drilling | London Indymedia Sept 2012 - Activists 'brick up' Shell HQ as the Arctic melts | Indymedia Ireland Sept 2012 - 1,600 billion - Massive scale of oil giveaway revealed in Shell to Sea report | Sourcewatch on Shell

"In a demonstration of the power of Alaska’s fierce weather and seas, tugboats were unable to prevent Shell’s massive, $290 million Beaufort Sea drilling rig from grounding near Kodiak Island at approximately 9 pm Alaska time on December 31, 2012. Fortunately, with extensive U.S. Coast Guard involvement, there was no loss of life." said Lois N. Epstein, P.E., engineer and Arctic Program Director for The Wilderness Society and member, DOI Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee

"The implications of this very troubling incident are clear – Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska’s weather and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during transit. Shell’s costly drilling experiment in the Arctic Ocean needs to be stopped by the federal government or by Shell itself given the unacceptably high risks it poses to both humans and the environment." said Epstein.

Responding to the news that Shell's Arctic drilling rig Kulluk had run aground off Kodiak Island in Alaska, Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe said in a Greenpeace media release:

Location of Kulluk grounding in AlaskaLocation of Kulluk grounding in Alaska"The grounding of Shell's Arctic rig, which contains tens of thousands of gallons of fuel oil, is yet another example of how utterly incapable this company is of operating safely in one of the planet's most remote and extreme environments."

"Shell has lurched from one Arctic disaster to the next, displaying staggering ineptitude every step of the way. Were the pristine environment of the frozen north not at risk of an oil spill it would be almost comical. Instead it’s tragic. We're moving closer to a major catastrophe in the Arctic and the US government appears unwilling to provide either the needed oversight or emergency backup the company's incompetence requires."

Ayliffe added: "Rather than opening up the high north to oil firms we need to keep this fragile place off-limits to reckless industrialisation. Greenpeace and the millions of people who have joined us to save the Arctic will be keeping a very close eye on developments in Kodiak."

Other environmental groups have also criticised the expansion of Arctic drilling permits and operations. The approval for oil drilling by Shell by the Obama administration in August 2012 were criticised by the Centre for Bioloogical Diversity as a monumental mistake.

"By opening the Arctic to offshore oil drilling, President Obama has made a monumental mistake that puts human life, wildlife and the environment in terrible danger. The harsh and frozen conditions of the Arctic make drilling risky, and an oil spill would be impossible to clean up," said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Scariest of all, the Obama administration is allowing Shell to go forward without even having the promised oil-spill containment equipment in place."

More than 1 million people sent President Obama messages asking him to save the Arctic from drilling. “Pursuing fossil fuels in the remote Arctic will destroy the life there, even as it speeds up the climate change that’s already destroying the polar bears’ home and poses enormous risks to people, too,” Noblin said.

On the grounding of the Kulluk the Centre said in a media release: “This latest mishap is another painful reminder that Arctic drilling is simply not safe,” said Deirdre McDonnell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity said.

"It boggles the mind that the Obama administration approved Shell’s drilling plans for the Arctic Ocean when it’s so clear that harsh environment is just too dangerous for drilling. The storm that sent the Kulluk adrift isn’t unusual in Alaska. An oil spill in the Arctic would be devastating to wildlife and would risk human lives. It’s a recipe for disaster. I hope the president will come to his senses and save the Arctic from oil drilling," said McDonnell.

Read more at Ben Ayliffe's full blog on the Greenpeace website from January 2, 2013.

Greenpeace are running a campaign to make the Arctic a sanctuary, rather than opening up the high north to oil firms. They want to keep the fragile ecosystems of the Arctic off-limits to reckless industrialisation. You can join to help Save The Arctic! Alternatively visit the Arctic Oil Development campaign page for the Center for Biological Diversity for background information.

Update 6 Jan 2013: 

Professor Clifford F. Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, has called into question the judgement of towing the Kulluk to Seattle given the frequent storms in the Gulf of Alaska at this time of year. "Shell Oil made a misguided and poorly informed decision to move a huge drilling platform (the Kulluk) from Dutch Harbor Alaska to Seattle starting December 21st." he says on his latest blog entry. 

"Anyone familiar with the meteorology of the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska knows that this region is one of the stormiest on the planet with one major storm after another during midwinter.  Unbelievably, a Shell Oil spokesman said, that forecasts indicated  a favorable two-week weather window.   This is at odds with the facts."

"First, as I will show below the forecasts on the day they left clearly suggested the potential for big storms during the 3-4 week voyage to Seattle, including the first week.  Second, forecast skill drops substantially after 4-6 days and thus there was no guarantee of fair weather for this difficult tow."

Mass then proceeds to show the weather charts for the region as the drama unfolded. He demonstrates that the decision to move such a rig based on the known weather showed gross incompetence and perhaps negligence on behalf of Shell Corporation and it's contractors. Read more at Cliff Mass Weather blog: Gulf of Alaska storms versus Shell Oil Drilling Platform.


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