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Murphy’s Law and Shell drilling in the Arctic Ocean

Comment from a former employee of Shell Oil USA

After several decades of working in the oil industry in the exploration side of the business I have learned that Murphy’s Law pretty much rules. If it can happen, it will happen. Soon or later the laws of statistics catch up with you.

Some examples are:

– $150 million wells that are supposed to be ‘sure discoveries’ are dry holes (e.g., the Mukluk prospect in Alaska).

– Gas pipelines that are not well maintained explode in the middle of residential neighborhoods (last week in California).

– A drunken (and known alcoholic) tanker captain run his ship aground in the most sensitive of environmental areas (Exxon Valdez).

– Valves that are not installed properly almost sink a production platform (BP’s Thunder Horse).

– An improperly completed well blows out sinking the poorly maintained drilling rig and causing a massive oil spill (BP’s Deep Water Horizon).

– A drilling rig on a floating barge drills into an abandoned salt mine, draining a Louisiana marsh and sucking the rig and barge into the mine (Texaco, 1980).

– Impoverished ‘natives’ seeking to survive continue to tap unburied pipelines in the Niger River Delta causing vast amounts of oil spillage and long term environmental destruction.

And so it goes. If it can happen, it will happen. Particularly if you tempt the laws of statistics.

And now Shell wants to tempt chance in the Arctic Ocean. A blow out of one of their proposed exploration wells (or even a production well if it comes to that later on) could be the ‘black swan’ event that takes Shell USA down as a company. (The 1970 Bay Marchand Gulf of Mexico blowout on a shallow water production platform comes to mind. BP is in good company.) Shell has no way of responding to such an event. The cost of the resulting cleanup would likely dwarf the cost of the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell USA management, in an effort to save some money, wants to drill in the Arctic with a refurbished, but antiquated drilling rig (converted Japanese log carrier launched in 1965) with no way to respond to a major ‘accident’. They have no contingency plan and have made taken no meaningful measures to prepare for a ‘major incident’.

So, the fact of the matter is that Shell USA management is willing to take a calculated risk and risk the future of the company to save a few million dollars drilling a couple of exploration wells in the most environmentally sensitive area of the planet. And they are willing to do so even after BP’s abject lesson in tempting chance.

Obviously, they have little regard for the investment of the shareholders of the company.

And we should trust the judgement of these clowns and let them drill anyway?

I don’t think so.

Comment from a Shell retiree

On blow-outs in Shell: the former employee of Shell Oil forgot a few.

Sleen (Netherlands) 1965 Whole rig disappeared.

Champion-41, Brunei early 1974, whole rig and production platform disappeared in the crater.

Champion-141, Brunei 1979

Brunei Bay, Rasau-17, Seria 354, Seria 516, South Furious,

Also look here:

Schoonebeek steam blowout, 1976

ISBA 123 in Syria, Yibal-13 in Oman (nearly lost the whole field…),

Barton-BT5  see:

Using Google one can find many more and these are all by Shell. The rest of the industry is even worse. Cock-ups happen. Remember the valve that was forgotten to close on the launch of Sleipner concrete platform? It went lower into the water but unfortunately it kept going until it sank and caused a small earthquake. And another billion dollars down the drain.

So I totally agree with the previous writer, there simply is insufficient discipline and know-how around to prevent future disasters. Tough auditors are not enough rewarded and neither is plain old competence. Promises and nice presentations are rewarded much better. E&P is no longer Exploration & Production but Excel & Powerpoint. And therefore disasters will continue.

I too have missed a great many blow outs and near misses. Perhaps you can ask your readers to complete the table…

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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