Alaska weather reminds Big Oil who’s in charge in the Arctic

oil drilling rig

More than two weeks after an exploratory oil well in Alaska’s Arctic experienced a blowout, spilling spewing gas and drilling mud onto the tundra and forcing workers to flee a potential explosion, the well still hasn’t been brought under control. This is how the oil industry proves it can handle drilling in Arctic conditions?

Crews can’t kill the Qugruk 2 well, on Alaska’s North Slope, because it’s frozen, and they can’t thaw it easily because the temperature has been about -70F with wind chill. Even without the wind, the temperature has been -45 degrees and colder for weeks. Workers can’t operate outdoor equipment in that kind of weather.

Meanwhile, the Dutch oil giant Shell is preparing a fleet of vessels in preparation for drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Company officials tell us they’re confident they can control a blowout at the bottom of a cold, stormy sea, and recover most of the oil they spill -- things they have failed to do in much more temperate regions.

Repsol, the Spanish company that lost control of Qugruk 2, obviously believed it could handle winter conditions in the Arctic. But now the weather is in charge.  In the Arctic, the weather is always in charge, and weather has no sympathy for those who are greedy and overconfident.

So, we’re left to watch an oil company struggle with brutal conditions it thought it could handle. And we’ll probably be watching for quite a while.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says an estimate of when the well will be controlled “cannot be determined.”

Repsol’s blowout is a stark reminder that Arctic conditions can overwhelm the oil industry’s technology.  And it’s a reminder that Shell is making promises it can’t keep.