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Shell’s spectacular belly flop into the Arctic Ocean

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 17.18.55Even more troubling than Shell’s “Arctic-ready” armada problems is Shell’s spectacular failure of good judgment. To avoid an Alaska tax bill, company managers ordered its secondary drill rig towed south through the winter storm-lashed Gulf of Alaska despite the tug master’s prescient warning that: “the length of tow, at this time of the year, in this location, with our current routing, guarantees an ass-kicking.” The tug master was right.

Extracts from a letter dated 11 Dec 2014 by Kim Elton, who served four years as senior adviser to former US Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar. 

Here are some lowlights from Shell’s pratfall-ridden 2012 effort to drill exploration wells: A Coast Guard inspection of Shell’s 47-year-old primary drilling ship found 23 “deficiencies” (including engine problems) days before it was set to sail for the Arctic; that rig nearly beached dragging anchor in a calm Aleutian port en route to the Arctic; Shell’s required spill response barge initially flunked minimum seaworthiness tests after it was rescued from a barge boneyard in Southern California; Shell’s spill containment dome was “crushed like a beer can” in placid Puget Sound sea trials, never making it to the Arctic; the lead drilling rig finally punched its first drill bit into the Arctic Ocean floor in mid-September and, the next day, an ice floe the size of Manhattan forced it off; that same rig then suffered an explosion and fire leaving the Arctic; it later was detained by the Coast Guard in Alaska for major safety, propulsion and pollution “discrepancies” (CBS reported when Coast Guard criminal investigators arrived, the crew had been provided with lawyers and declined to be interviewed); Shell’s secondary drilling rig had 19 deficiencies in electrical and maintenance systems discovered when it arrived back in Dutch Harbor from the Arctic; and Shell incurred more than $1 million in fines for air-quality violations in the Arctic.

Even more troubling than Shell’s “Arctic-ready” armada problems is Shell’s spectacular failure of good judgment. To avoid an Alaska tax bill, company managers ordered its secondary drill rig towed south through the winter storm-lashed Gulf of Alaska despite the tug master’s prescient warning that: “the length of tow, at this time of the year, in this location, with our current routing, guarantees an ass-kicking.” The tug master was right. His tow broke in a fierce storm. Eighteen crew members were helicoptered to safety and more than 600 emergency responders tried to save the rig before it was fatally maimed on a desolate Alaska beach. Shell bean counters lost a $300 million rig and jeopardized lives just to save a few million in taxes.

So, it is Shell’s spectacular belly flop into the Arctic Ocean that stalls development.

— Kim Elton lives in Bend. Elton served four years as senior adviser to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He was involved in the secretary’s decision to approve Shell’s 2012 excursion into the Arctic. He also represented the secretary in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP spill and was a federal trustee on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

FULL PUBLISHED LETTER

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