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Arctic offshore drilling: Is Shell really ready to handle a disaster?



I have a few comments about Shell’s claim that it prepared to handle any ‘foreseeable problem/disaster’ that may befall its proposed drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean of offshore Alaska.

I would like to point out that major blowouts these days are almost always caused by some sort of preventable error/screw-up on the part of the oil company or its contractors. In fact, this has historically been the rule rather than the exception.

BP’s recent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was completely preventable. From what I have been able to ascertain from publicly available information, it is BP (through poor technical management oversight and technical incompetence at various stages in the drill in testing of that well) that is clearly responsible for that ‘incident’.

Shell USA has a history of similar problems. The Bay Marchand production platform blowout of the early 1970’s and the blowout at the Bourbon production platform in the late 1980’s are classic examples of similar problems at Shell. Both were clearly and easily preventable.

Shell may indeed be prepared for ‘any contingency’ on paper, but the engineering and management staff assigned to those exploratory wells must be competent enough to not only deal with problems as they arise, but take preventative measures to keep problems from arising. That is not a given. Nowhere do I see any indication that anyone is paying serious attention to the qualifications of those Shell personnel that have been chosen by the company and their contractors to staff their drilling operations.

I have been around enough to know that in ‘boom’ times it is very difficult for major oil companies to keep their experienced staff. They get better job offers elsewhere. In the States these days there is a boom in the industry as everyone and his uncle tries to cash in on the new shale gas plays. When I first went to work for Shell in the early 1980’s Shell was losing just over 25% of its engineering staff a year to smaller companies, and the average time ‘in discipline’ for many of its engineering staff was averaging less that 2 years. Shell compounded this competence problem by offering ‘early retirement’ to many of its most senior technical people.

So, while Shell may indeed be ‘ready to drill’ in the Arctic, at least on paper, there is no telling how its staff will handle a serious accident. BP’s performance doesn’t give one a great deal of confidence. Rookies can and do make mistakes, and they often compound those mistakes with other mistakes as they try to correct problems. Let us not forget the contractors Shell hires to provide critical engineering, etc., service for the drilling of those wells.

I personally think Shell has a way to go before it has clearly demonstrated the company and its contractors have the ability (engineering talent and experience) to deal with any ‘foreseable problem’ that may arise during it proposed drilling program.

This is just the opinion of someone who has been around the block and had to deal with more than one blowout in his career.




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