Mother Nature and Coast Guard put Shell drilling on ice

Ice has forced Shell Oil to delay the start of drilling in the Arctic Ocean, shortening the limited summer drilling season by at least three weeks.

Photo by the U.S. Geological Survey

Alaska’s weather and the U.S. Coast Guard are teaching Shell what we’ve been saying all along: We’re not ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

The technology to operate safely and recover significant amounts of spilled oil in such a harsh environment simply doesn’t exist.

Not that the Dutch oil company actually expects to recover much oil. Company officials recently changed their spin and, instead of saying they would recover 95 percent of the oil they spill in Alaska’s Arctic — a claim that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said he believes — they tried to correct the record by saying they will “encounter” the oil, not recover it.

“We say in our plan we expect to ‘encounter’ 90 percent of any discharge on site — very close to the drilling rig,” Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith told the Associated Press. “We expect to encounter 5 percent near-shore between the drilling rig and the coast. And we expect to encounter another 5 percent on shore. We never make claims about the percent we could actually recover, because conditions vary, of course.”

Next — and one could argue that this is good news — the company announced that it has pushed the start of offshore drilling in the Arctic to early August because of unexpected amounts of sea ice, which is still melting. So Shell, which has been claiming it can operate safely in Arctic conditions, found in July that it couldn’t even begin to operate in the Arctic when it had expected.

This makes Shell’s planned drilling schedule extra tight because drilling must halt by September in the Chukchi Sea, and by October in the Beaufort Sea. Incidentally, we don’t understand why the federal government is allowing Beaufort drilling for a longer time period than in the Chukchi, because sea ice-related concerns exist for both locations.

The U.S. Coast Guard, meanwhile, has refused to grant final certification to the Arctic Challenger, a new ice-class barge built to carry Shell’s emergency response equipment. The vessel’s electrical, piping and fire-suppression systems need modifications before they’ll pass inspection. For now, this key vessel is stuck in Seattle while awaiting sea trials.

Until the Arctic Challenger is ready, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement told the Los Angeles Times, Shell won’t get the final permits it needs to begin drilling.

That would be the best news of all.

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