Next Big Oil Spill Disaster Set for the Arctic

(10 am.

(It’s still early enough that you could give this some attention at another site if you should be so inclined.- ek) – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Shell Oil is on its way right now to a location less than 15 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. “Shell has proposed drilling up to four shallow water exploration wells in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea this summer, beginning on July 1,” Subsea World News reported last month.

The potential harm from a BP-scale spill is almost beyond comprehension,” David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society wrote at the Huffington Post.

If there is a spot on Earth as sacred or as critical to the future of our wild birds as the Gulf of Mexico, it is probably the unspoiled Arctic. Here, hundreds of bird species arrive every spring from all four North American flyways — the superhighways in the sky that birds use to travel up and down the Americas. Here, they mate, lay eggs and raise their young. Here also, many of America’s remaining polar bears make their winter dens along the coasts.

Siri wrote earlier today on Daily Kos on how the BP-spill in 2010 has caused unprecedented mutations and deformities in ocean life in Gulf of Mexico. Today, I’ll look at how our government and Big Oil are setting the stage in the Arctic for the sequel to Deepwater Horizon disaster. The script is already written and the leading actors are already on their way to the set.  

The Department of the Interior (DOI) approved Shell Oil’s spill response plan in February.

“In the Arctic frontier, cautious exploration – under the strongest oversight, safety requirements, and emergency response plans ever established – can help us expand our understanding of the area and its resources, and support our goal of continuing to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production,”  [Secretary of the Interior Ken] Salazar said.

“The risks will only increase as drilling moves into deeper waters with harsher, less familiar environmental conditions. Delays in taking the necessary precautions threaten new disasters,” warned the presidential oil spill commission in their 1st report card assessment (pdf).

Now only one speed bump remains for Shell before it can begin drilling. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) needs to still approve well-specific permits for each well. The BSEE has already approved Shell’s plan to handle a worst case discharged over a 30-day period and providing logistics for spill containment. BSEE plans on having “on-site unannounced inspections” (pdf) to ensure Shell oil spill response equipment is ready. How they expect to keep secret surprise inspections in the middle of the Arctic is not made clear.

The commission report card warns improvements to preventing significant oil spills from well blowouts “have yet to be adequately tested”. The blowout preventer (BOP) that failed at the Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well site is now required to have a backup, but –

… the Department has not yet issued rules to correct the BOP design flaw identified as a principle reason why the Macondo well BOP failed to operate properly, or to implement the Commission’s recommendation that blowout preventers and other well components be equipped with sensors indicating critical diagnostic information about how well they are functioning.

The Arctic is the next frontier for oil and gas drilling. Thanks to global warming (gee thanks), the Arctic sea ice is disappearing fast and places where offshore drilling was once impossible are now accessible. The commission reports:

The Arctic is a region that poses special challenges and opportunities; the region is both vulnerable and valuable, and requires intensified planning and preparation. Although a great deal of Arctic research has been undertaken over the last several decades, many central unanswered questions remain about the unique and complex ecosystems, and how climate change is impacting those systems.

The areas that Shell Oil has bought leases to drill are incredibly risky for offshore drilling. The commission wrote:

The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas present particularly challenging conditions for industry and for responders due to the increasingly extreme weather conditions (cold, ice, hurricane force winds) and remote location with limited response infrastructure.

From the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout on April 20, 2010, it took the oil industry five months, until September 19, 2010 to have the well officially sealed. During that time, a conservative estimate of 4.9 million barrels of crude oil and countless barrels of toxic dispersants were pumped into the Gulf. This disaster happened in the lower-48 and near major cities where there is infrastructure in place to handle the influx of people and equipment needed to cap a well blowout.

Now imagine how the government and oil industry can respond to a blowout spill in a remote part of the Arctic? The commission warned the U.S. Coast Guard is not capable of responding to an Arctic oil spill. According to the BSEE, the plan is for the Coast Guard to have a single cutter, equipped with a flight-deck and a 225-foot buoy tender in the region during the summer months to assist the oil companies in the event of a disaster. It’s obvious that even the “strongest ever” emergency plans approved by the Department of the Interior will not be enough to prevent a major disaster.

All the ships in the fleet could not put out the fire on Deepwater Horizon. Now imagine how many ships will be on hand in the Arctic to handle a rig explosion and well blowout there… in rough seas… in ice conditions.

The commission noted that while the DOI did limit the number of days that Shell could drill in the Chukchi Sea, it failed to “make such an adjustment in the Beaufort Sea

despite the frequently earlier encroachment of ice there.” How will an oil spill in rough seas be contained with floating booms and burning? The commission reports that despite industry “experiments to use in-situ burning and mechanical recovery of oil in ice conditions”, those “techniques have not been successfully tested in the extreme weather conditions that are often present in Arctic waters nor they been evaluated in any significant way by government entities.”

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) agrees this is madness. At the end of March, the Los Angeles Times reported that the GAO says Shell’s Arctic spill response plans might be lacking. “Shell’s plan fails to take into account the risks unique to oil production in harsh, icy offshore conditions,” according to the GAO assessment.

The report issued Friday by the Government Accountability Office cited Interior Department and Coast Guard officials who said “that a well containment response in Alaskan waters might face certain risks that could delay or impede a response to a blowout.”

The report raised questions about whether wellhead equipment could withstand ice that scoured along the sea floor.

Not just environmentalists are warning that Arctic oil is dangerous, even “free market forces” are saying that drilling in the Arctic is riskier. Lloyd’s of London has warned that the Arctic oil rush will ruin its ecosystems. The Guardian reported last week:

Lloyd’s of London, the world’s biggest insurance market, … believes cleaning up any oil spill in the Arctic, particularly in ice-covered areas, would present “multiple obstacles, which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk”.

Richard Ward, Lloyd’s chief executive, urged companies not to “rush in [but instead to] step back and think carefully about the consequences of that action” before research was carried out and the right safety measures put in place.

The Lloyd’s report said the Arctic ecosystems are “highly sensitive to damage” and such damage would have lasting impact. The report states:

“Migration patterns of caribou and whales in offshore areas may be affected. Other than the direct release of pollutants into the Arctic environment, there are multiple ways in which ecosystems could be disturbed, such as the construction of pipelines and roads, noise pollution from offshore drilling, seismic survey activity or additional maritime traffic as well as through the break-up of sea ice.”

Another BP-style blowout is all too possible, reports McClatchy. In addition to the commission’s report card, Oceana, an environmental advocacy group, released its own assessment too.

Oceana’s senior scientist Jackie Savitz said the oil spill commission’s overall recommendations were too weak in the first place and weren’t being followed: “So what we’re left with is a situation where not much has changed, and we could have the same spill any day.”

Oceana said the government continues to underestimate oil spill risk and damages so more drilling can be economically justified. The group also warns the industry clean-up plans approved by the DOI are unrealistic. The oil companies claim the will be able to skim more oil than ever has been done before. This is an incredibly bold claim by the oil companies that they’ll be able to capture more oil rough Arctic seas.

Cairn Energy is already drilling off the coast of Greenland. BP is planning to drill off the Russian coast as well. It’s not a question of if there will be another oil spill disaster, but when and the risks of a disaster in the Arctic are great.

Shell plans to begin drilling in the Beaufort Sea on July 1.



  1. Cross-posted by request from my essay on Daily Kos.

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