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Shell wins injunction keeping Greenpeace away from Arctic drilling fleet

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Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 17.04.22Yereth Rosen Alaska Dispatch News: May 8, 2015

Shell wins injunction keeping Greenpeace away from Arctic drilling fleet

Greenpeace protesters must stay away from Royal Dutch Shell’s drill ships and support vessels, the anchor lines and buoys attached to them and the Barrow airport hangar and terminal that Shell is seeking to use to support its planned oil-exploration operations in the Chukchi Sea, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Greenpeace activists are even prohibited from flying drones this summer and fall over the offshore Arctic area where Shell plans to drill, according to the injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason.

The injunction, in effect until Oct. 31, follows a well-publicized high-seas protest by Greenpeace activists who scaled one of the Shell-hired drill rigs, the Polar Pioneer, as it was being carried by a transport ship in the North Pacific Ocean. The six Greenpeace protesters camped on the Polar Pioneer for six days last month before climbing down and returning to the Esperanza, the Greenpeace ship that was shadowing the Polar Pioneer.

The injunction also expands terms Gleason established in a temporary restraining order issued April 11 against Greenpeace USA. That temporary order set up 1,000-meter buffer zones around Shell’s two drill rigs and the Blue Marlin, the ship transporting the Polar Pioneer. The new injunction establishes buffer zones ranging from 100 meters to 1,500 meters for all of Shell’s Chukchi fleet.

In a statement, Shell said it was pleased with the outcome.

“We don’t want a repeat of previous illegal stunts; they jeopardize the safety of the people working on board and the protestors themselves,” the statement said. “We’re always open to an honest discussion about the challenges and benefits of exploring for energy in the Arctic, but we cannot condone Greenpeace’s unlawful and unsafe tactics. Safety remains paramount.”

Gleason said Shell, which initially sought the injunction after the protesters boarded the Polar Pioneer and detailed its arguments at an all-day court hearing on April 28, made a convincing legal case for special protections from Greenpeace’s U.S. branch.

The company “submitted persuasive evidence that it is under a strong threat of future trespasses by Greenpeace USA in the near term,” she said in her ruling. The company also demonstrated that it could suffer irreparable, though incalculable, economic harm should Greenpeace activists disrupt exploration activities. In addition, any on-site protests by Greenpeace would threaten the safety of Shell workers, contract workers and the activists themselves, Gleason said.

She was unconvinced by Greenpeace’s assertion that the safe execution of the April protest showed that future protests would also be safe.

“Rather, in the Court’s view, the fact that no one was injured on that one occasion was quite fortuitous and does not serve to counter the clear risk of harm that is posed when individuals are scaling uninvited onto a vessel in the middle of the ocean or onto a drilling rig in the Chukchi Sea,” she said in her order.  

Greenpeace argued that it has a First Amendment right to observe, document and publicize Shell’s oil-exploration activities, and that it is unfair to single it out for more restrictions than those imposed by the U.S. Coast Guard. The environmental organization also challenged the court’s jurisdiction over the matter, and argued that Shell’s complaint should be dismissed.

The injunction issued by Gleason on Friday was similar to one she issued against Greenpeace in 2012. That legal action followed a protest in New Zealand in which Greenpeace activists – including actress Lucy Lawless – boarded the Shell-hired Noble Discoverer and delayed the departure of that Alaska-bound drill ship. Lawless and her fellow protesters were later fined by New Zealand officials.

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Lois Epstein: May 8, 2015

Shell hasn’t earned enough trust to drill in Alaska’s Arctic seas

Despite Royal Dutch Shell’s disastrous performance during its 2012 Arctic Ocean drilling season, the federal government is on track to approve the company’s exploratory drilling plan for the Arctic Ocean in 2015. The potential for another problem-filled drilling season is high.

The pressure on the federal government — both the Department of the Interior and the US Coast Guard — to approve drilling this summer is enormous, but the federal government needs to say no. Shell already has an armada of vessels on its way to Alaska, and has spent approximately $6 billion on Arctic Ocean drilling to date with little to show for it.

Let’s recall what happened in 2012. Shell’s botched towing operation after the drilling season put contractor and Coast Guard lives in serious peril when Shell’s drilling rig, the Kulluk, lost its tow line; the rig later was a complete loss after it ran aground near Kodiak. Shell and its contractors let the drillship Noble Discoverer slip anchor and nearly run aground in Dutch Harbor en route to the Arctic. Shell’s new oil-containment dome was “crushed like a beer can” during sea trials in calm waters in Washington state. Environmental and safety violations associated with the Noble Discoverer’s operations led to millions of dollars in fines and eight felony guilty pleas for Shell’s contractor.

Remarkably, Shell’s 2015 exploration plan in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea provides significantly fewer protections for the Arctic Ocean than in 2012. In 2015:

  • No wells drilled would have a zero-discharge limit for contaminated drilling muds, compared to half the wells in 2012.
  • Shell would no longer recycle toxic drilling fluids.
  • Shell would test blowout preventers every 14 days instead of every seven.
  • Shell would meet only the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s weaker air-quality rules instead of following the more stringent rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The drilling plan would not contain critical habitat protections for polar bears.
  • Shell’s ice-management activities would double to two rigs in the Chukchi Sea, creating more activity and noise disturbances for nearby fish and marine mammals such as polar bears, walruses and seals.
  • Shell’s roundtrip flights to offshore sites would rise from 12 to up to 40 per week, creating more noise disturbances for wildlife, more air pollution, and more potential for accidents.
  • The risk of an oil spill affecting the sensitive western coastline of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would double with two rigs operating in the Chukchi.

To make matters worse, in 2015 Shell plans to use an unfamiliar drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer. This rig is operated by Transocean, the same contractor that operated BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, which released more than 200 million gallons of oil and killed 11 in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Use of the unfamiliar Polar Pioneer could result in new problems during drilling and mobilization/demobilization. Like the Kulluk, the rig is not self-propelled and would need towing under harsh Alaska conditions.

As for so-called cleanup if there were a major spill, Shell and other offshore operators have no technology for recovering meaningful amounts of spilled oil from icy, stormy seas. Additionally, Alaska’s northern coast still lacks the infrastructure for launching and supporting a major response, and the nearest Coast Guard base remains about 1,000 miles away from the proposed drilling sites.

It is incorrect for Shell to say that in 2012, drilling operations went smoothly. Such a statement ignores the fact that drilling and mobilization/demobilization must be nearly flawless for there not to be serious problems in Alaska’s harsh operational environment.

The same oil company that showed poor judgment and made many major technical mistakes in 2012 is asking us to trust it to protect the near-pristine, fragile and remote Arctic Ocean in 2015. With its history in 2012 and the problematic weakening of its drilling plan for the Chukchi Sea, Shell has not earned that trust.

The public relies on the federal government to protect our interests, not just those of a powerful company. Even if it feels strong pressure to do otherwise, the federal government would be justified in rejecting Shell’s Arctic Ocean drilling plan for 2015.

Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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