After a final protest by kayak-paddling activists, Shell’s deep-sea oil drilling rig left the port of Seattle, headed for Alaska’s Chukchi Sea – and, environmentalists say, towards imminent disaster.
Called the Polar Pioneer, the ship arrived in Seattle in mid-May, shortly after the Obama administration’s controversial approval of exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic. It soon drew a fleet of “kayaktivists” whose colorful blockades turned the 400ft-long, 300ft-tall colossus into a symbol of Arctic drilling.
On Monday morning, after receiving news of the Polar Pioneer’s planned departure, 16 kayaktivists gathered before dawn. Two hours later they were pulled from the water by the US Coast Guard, and tugboats pulled the Polar Pioneer out to sea.
Kayativists detained whilst oil spills loom
“Our next step is to make sure where our activists are. They’re being detained by the Coast Guard,” said Greenpeace spokesperson Cassady Sharp as the ship passed from sight. “Then the ship has a two-week journey to Alaska. The movement has got quite big in this region. We expect the protests to continue.”
Looming over the departure, and over the entire issue of Arctic oil drilling, are the two highest-profile spills of recent history: the Exxon Valdez oil spill, off Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The Valdez spill was a lesson in how unprepared people were for oil’s complicated, long-term ecological effects, said University of North Carolina marine scientist Charles Peterson. Impacts rippled through food chains, causing damage – to fisheries, cetaceans and the very structure of the aquatic environment – that took decades to recover from, and in some cases are permanent.
Deepwater Horizon spill occurred a mile beneath the ocean
Whereas Valdez was a surface spill, the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred a mile beneath the ocean. There, said Peterson, we learned how differently oil behaves at extreme depths: forming suspended plumes rather than rising to the surface, and proving extremely difficult to control and to clean.
Both lessons may apply to a deep-sea Arctic spill. The Polar Pioneer’s first wells will be sited at depths of 8,000 feet, and a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report put the chances of a major spill happening before century’s end at 75%. Even if it beats those odds, drilling in the Arctic represents the tapping of a vast new source of carbon pollution, pushing Earth’s climate even further into peril.
Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defence Council argue the risks of a future oil spill had not been adequately assessed by the US Bureau of Safety Environmental Enforcement.
Taking US in the wrong direction
Erik Grafe, Earthjustice staff attorney, also said allowing oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean takes the US in the wrong direction on combating climate change and downplays the catastrophic consequences of an oil spill here.
“Shell proved itself unprepared in 2012, and it remains so today and should not be permitted to drill in our fragile Arctic Ocean,” he added.
The environmental organisations were quick to highlight a recent report which blamed Shell for an accident involving the grounding of a rig, the Kulluk, on its last drilling mission in 2012.
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the grounding of the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk was Shell’s inadequate assessment of the risk for its planned tow of the Kulluk,” said the NTSB report.
Judges rule in favour of Shell
But judges still ruled by 2-1 in favour of Shell at the ninth US circuit court of appeals, saying the oil spill response plan had been appropriately reviewed by the environmental safety regulator.
Shell points out that the Kulluk incident was a towing problem – not a drilling one – and says it has learned many lessons from both this accident and its experience working in 2012.
Nevertheless some oil companies, notably Total of France, have already decided that the risk of environmental damage was too high.
Some pull out as leak would damage image of company
“Oil on Greenland would be a disaster,” then-chief executive Christophe Margerie told the Financial Times in 2012. “A leak would do too much damage to the image of the company.”
An independent report from accountancy firm Ernst & Young played up prospects for oil wealth in this region but also spelled out the environmental difficulties facing Arctic drillers: “The intense cold for much of the year, long periods of near-total darkness, the potential ice-pack damage to offshore facilities, the marshy tundra dictating seasonal activity in many areas and the limited biological activity all will take a huge toll on equipment and personnel.”
Ben van Beurden, Shell’s chief executive, stressed to shareholders at his own annual general meeting on 20 May that lessons of the last drilling campaign had been learned.
Huge opportunities come with huge obligations
He also accepted that “huge opportunities come with huge obligations” but is convinced that Shell has put unprecedented planning and logistic into ensuring the drilling is as safe as possible.
The plans for the latest oil search are causing deep unease along the coast in places such as Barrow where the oil company is setting up a “man camp” to provide logistical support. Shell has been using Seattle – further south, in Washington state – as a marine base and there have been widespread on-shore protests there as well as the actions by the kayaktivists.
Ed Murray, the mayor of Seattle, has made his opposition felt by challenging the port authority’s right to provide berthing space to Shell’s rig. And he said humanity needed to look to the future, not the past: “To prevent the full force of climate change, it’s time to turn the pages on things like coal trains, oil trains and oil drilling rigs. Its time to focus the economy on the future: electric cars and transit, green homes and environmentally progressive businesses.”
By Brandon Keim and Terry Macalister. Source: The Guardian