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Arctic Drilling Poses Untold Risks, Study Concludes

November 11, 2010, 5:43 pm

By LESLIE KAUFMAN

An image of a an oil-spill response vessel from a Shell commercial promoting Arctic drilling.

Now that the moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling has been lifted by the Obama administration, the battle for the Arctic is heating up again.

The suspension on deep-sea drilling was of course a reaction to the disastrous blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that produced the biggest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history, gushing from April to July. The moratorium was lifted last month, about six weeks before a Nov. 30 expiration date.

As soon as it was lifted, my colleague Cliff Krauss reported last week, Royal Dutch Shell began lobbying eagerly to get final approval for its long-delayed plans for exploratory drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The petro-giant is paying for national advertising as part of a campaign to convince the public and the government that it is taking the kind of safety precautions that would prevent the kind of catastrophe that unfolded in the gulf from happening in the Arctic.

Yet the Arctic is well known to be more fragile ecologically than the gulf. And on Thursday, the Pew Environmental Group released a detailed report brimming with charts and maps that explores the question of how well the government and industry would be equipped to deal with a blowout and spill there. The report concludes, not so well. And here are some word-for-word highlights on why:

  • The Arctic Ocean is a unique operating environment, and the characteristics of the Arctic OCS [outer continental shelf] — its remote location, extreme climate and dynamic sea ice—exacerbate the risks and consequences of oil spills while complicating cleanup.
  • Oil spill contingency plans often underestimate the probability and consequence of catastrophic blowouts, particularly for frontier offshore drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
  • The impact of an oil well blowout in the U.S. Arctic Ocean could devastate an already stressed ecosystem, and there is very little baseline science upon which to anticipate the impact or estimate damage.
  • Oil spill cleanup technologies and systems are unproved in the Arctic Ocean, and recent laboratory and held trials (including the Joint Industry Project) have evaluated only discrete technologies under controlled conditions.
  • Certain environmental and weather conditions would preclude an oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean, yet an Arctic spill response gap is not incorporated into existing oil spill contingency plans or risk evaluations.

So the researchers concluded that far more study is needed of the Arctic marine ecosystem. Modeling should be devised to project the trajectory of oil flow in sea ice conditions should a spill occur, they added.

And deployment exercises should be conducted to determine how effective a spill response would be in such a remote, sparsely populated region “before introduction of new offshore oil spill risks,” the report said. (The study includes a detailed critique of Shell’s planning scenarios in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.)

In other words, the study’s message is that the Arctic is not ready for such deepwater drilling operations.

That conclusion did not go down well with Arctic drilling proponents. “I disagree with Pew’s insistence on an unspecified moratorium on Arctic development, because the perfect set of conditions simply never occurs,” Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, said in a statement. “I’ll continue to push the Obama administration for responsible Arctic development now to help meet America’s energy, national and economic security.”

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