Shell sets sights on the Arctic Ocean drilling again

An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would be especially catastrophic as there are no known ways to clean oil from oil.

 Photo: NASA

How can we trust an oil company to drill in Arctic waters when it's clear they are no match for Arctic weather? In the latest flap, Shell will abandon Beaufort Sea drilling in 2014 -- but renew its attempts at the nearby Chukchi Sea.

After a series of errors during the 2012 Arctic drilling season, Shell may scrap its multimillion-dollar Kulluk drill rig – which was damaged when it ran aground on New Year’s Eve – but still plans to return to the Arctic Ocean possibly as early as 2014.

And it plans to return with another decades-old drill rig, this one owned by Transocean, the Swiss contractor that operated the infamous Deepwater Horizon rig. That rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico three years ago, killing eleven people and setting off the largest offshore oil spill in American history.

Nearly a year after losing control of the Kulluk while towing it through stormy Alaska seas, Shell still hasn’t figured out if it can repair the rig, and is preparing to write off losses of up to several hundred million of dollars. The company is making plans to replace the Kulluk with Transocean’s 29-year-old Polar Pioneer.

Shell hasn’t explained how it will overcome the challenges that foiled the company in 2012 including how it would effectively manage the armada of vessels required to support a drilling operation in a remote, harsh environment. Nor has it met the Department of the Interior’s request for a third-party audit of its management systems.

At a time when climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world, the federal government is considering another lease sale in the Chukchi Sea. This would add insult to injury, and further increase climate change. Please take a moment to tell the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) that you want the ocean protected.

Ask the government to protect Arctic waters from unsafe oil and gas drilling. 

Map: Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic Ocean. 

Shell officials said the company’s Arctic plans will be dramatically scaled back, and focused solely on the Chukchi Sea portion of the Arctic Ocean. That’s good news – at least for now -- for the Beaufort Sea.

Further complicating the issue is an ongoing shuffle of the top drilling regulators in Washington, D.C., just as managers are writing new rules for domestic and Arctic drilling. Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is on the verge of leaving for another post within the Department of the Interior. Beaudreau, an Alaskan, has been popular with both industry and environmental groups. His departure would deprive BOEM of his expertise just as Shell again sets its sights on the Arctic Ocean.

Shell is still recovering from its errors and the beating dished out by its Arctic operations last year. It is poised to write off hundreds of millions of dollars for losing the Kulluk. It wants to return to the Chukchi Sea without a full analysis of what went wrong in 2012, even as Interior is going through a shakeup of the managers who oversee offshore drilling.

What could possibly go wrong?