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Don’t Allow Shell Oil to Destroy America’s Arctic

Posted: 7/28/11 07:48 AM ET

An Open Letter to Michael Bromwich, Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement

Re: Shell’s push to drill in the Arctic

Dear Director Bromwich:

You recently said that you were studying how to treat “[offshore drilling] operators who may have behaved badly in the past and whether they should be allowed to continue operating in the future.” I’m writing to tell you about one company that has not only been “behaving badly” in the past but plans to continue doing so into the future. Shell Oil is pushing to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean – an area pristine and untouched, home to some of our nation’s most beloved species of wildlife and relied upon for thousands of years by local indigenous peoples –with no effective way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s ice-covered, remote and extreme conditions.

In the wake of the largest environmental disaster in our nation’s history – one year later, 491 miles of Gulf coastline remain contaminated by oil – Shell should not be allowed to destroy America’s one and only Arctic.

Shell is pushing an aggressive plan to drill 10 wells in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that more often than not, are covered in thick, vast sheets of ice. As part of its expensive and slick public relations campaign, Shell claims that it has “perfected” Arctic oil spill response. The oil giant’s oil spill response plan for the Arctic states that it would be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil in the event of a spill in the Arctic. On the contrary, taking into account the Arctic’s extreme weather conditions and broken ice, the amount of oil that could be cleaned up is actually somewhere between 1 and 20 percent, according to a comprehensive study by the federal government’s scientific arm.

Part of Shell’s slick propaganda campaign includes a video promoting Shell’s shiny boats that are “ice-strengthened” and “purpose built for their work in the Arctic,” all “ready to respond before a drill bit hits the floor.” In the hours and days following the BP spill, tens of thousands of boats appeared the Gulf’s calm, temperate waters. In the Arctic, Shell says that it can handle a spill in the most extreme weather conditions in the world with just a few boats. Shell fails to mention that there are no deepwater ports anywhere near the Arctic and that the nearest Coast Guard station (a critical component to any oil spill response) is 1,000 miles away. Currently, both of the Coast Guard’s heavy ice breakers – which would provide crucial support in the event of a spill – are out of commission.

Shell does acknowledge in their oil spill response plan that they cannot safely or effectively respond to any spill that occurs more than 21 days into the Arctic drilling season (July to October).  If a spill happens outside of that window, their shiny, expensive plan is to leave the spilled oil where it is until spring comes and the ice thaws.  They call it a “leave in place” plan.

Shell also recently admitted that containment booms won’t work in the Arctic – as was made clearly evident during a February spill in Norway’s Arctic. Shell’s answer to this problem? Chemical dispersants dropped from airplanes. Never mind the fact that these airplanes will need to be able to fly in weather that often makes it impossible for people to even step outside. And these dispersants have yet to be tested in waters that are typically covered by sea ice that can reach as tall as some apartment buildings. And the damage to ocean life from dispersants? No studies there.

Couple all this with the fact that Shell was recently found to be responsible for more than 50 spills in 2009-2010 in the North Sea alone, almost one-third of which would have had lethal consequences had they ignited. If this is Shell’s track record in the North Sea after promising to clean up its act five years ago when a major accident killed two oil workers, I shudder to think what its track record in the Arctic would be.

But that’s not all. In May, Shell was called out by Norway’s petroleum regulatory authority for “bad planning” during production at an offshore drill site in Norway’s Arctic waters. The Norwegian authority cited inadequacies in multiple areas including “management, risk assessment, well barriers, well barrier sketches, well control, and daily reporting of drilling and well activities.” According to Ole-Johan Faret, a Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority spokesman, Shell seemed to be following a “quick-fix philosophy,” instead of adhering to regulations that require two barrier systems to be in place to deal with a potential spill. “The barrier situation was not taken seriously,” Faret said. “This is not an acceptable approach.”

Shell says that it takes seriously its “tremendous responsibility to the workers who brave the harsh conditions, the stakeholders who rely on the bounty of the sea and the environment itself.” The facts show otherwise.

And these are just Shell’s misdeeds in Arctic waters. These examples don’t come close to Shell’s human rights abuses and gross environmental degradation in the Niger Delta. As Williams Mkpa, a community leader in Ibeno, told the Guardian: “Oil companies do not value our life; they want us to all die. In the past two years, we have experienced 10 oil spills and fishermen can no longer sustain their families. It is not tolerable.”  In the past 30 years, more than 1,000 spill cases in Nigeria have been filed against Shell alone.

The Inupiat people of Alaska’s North Slope stand to lose everything if Shell is allowed to drill in Arctic waters. For thousands of years, they have survived off the bounty of “their garden,” which is home to polar bears, bowhead whales, ice seals, walrus and so much more. Director Bromwich, you must not stand by and let Shell do what has done throughout the world to a place that, if destroyed, can never be replaced. Together with the Inupiat people, I ask you to protect the Arctic garden.


Cindy Shogan

Executive Director

Alaska Wilderness League


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