Shell files plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2014

Shell's Kulluk oil rig off the shore of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, October 2012

Shell is telling the federal government that it’s ready to return to Alaska and drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea in 2014, even though the company is still recovering from the beating dished out by the Arctic during the company’s first attempt in 2012.

Shell has filed a revised exploration plan with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and described steps the company would take to overcome its disastrous 2012 season, which was compounded by a harsh environment and Shell’s own errors. That debacle came to a notorious end with the New Year’s Eve grounding of the Kulluk drill rig after Shell attempted to tow it across the Gulf of Alaska during a winter storm.

The Kulluk was so heavily damaged that Shell has said the rig might have to be scrapped. The revised drilling plan says a leased drill ship – the Polar Pioneer – would replace the Kulluk as a backup rig that could drill a relief well in the event of a blowout like the one that occurred after BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Polar Pioneer is operated and owned by Transocean, the same contractor that operated the Deepwater Horizon. In its backup role, the Polar Pioneer likely would remain in Dutch Harbor, hundreds of miles from the Chukchi Sea. Shell is not planning to drill in the Beaufort Sea in the foreseeable future.

Shell’s main drill ship would be the Noble Discoverer, which was detained by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2012 over serious problems with the vessel’s safety and pollutant discharge systems. The Coast Guard later launched a criminal investigation into those issues.

Another important change in Shell’s exploration plan is that oversight of its air emissions would fall to BOEM, not the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because of a bill rider pushed through Congress by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2011, presumably to weaken air pollution oversight of these operations.

The Discoverer and its support vessels have a history of violating EPA air pollution standards, and have been hit with fines of $710,000 for Clean Air Act violations during the 2012 Arctic drilling season. The Kulluk has been fined $390,000 for separate air-quality violations in the same year. 

By submitting this revised exploration plan – which will have a short public comment period when BOEM deems it complete – Shell claims it is keeping its drilling options open for 2014.

With a new Shell CEO coming on board in early 2014, however, drilling plans for the Arctic Ocean could change. Investment advisor Sara Murphy writes in The Motley Fool that she thinks “a 2014 return to the Chukchi will prove to have been a mistake.”

The oil industry still hasn’t developed the technology to recover meaningful amounts of spilled oil from cold, stormy seas, and they still haven’t earned our trust.  

Video: Watch the grounding of the Kulluk rig, one of many Shell accidents that happened in 2012.