Shell's North Sea oil spill is only the beginning of what could happen in Arctic waters

Shell's ongoing oil spill battle in the North Sea is disturbing, but it is made even more disturbing given that Shell recently received conditional approval to move forward with dangerous drilling plans in Alaska's Arctic waters next summer. 

Undeterred by the tragedy of last year’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and became the worst oil-spill disaster in U.S. history, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) issued on Aug. 4 a conditional approval for Shell Offshore Inc. to begin drilling up to four exploration wells in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea in 2012.

Meanwhile, despite the company's claims about "safe drilling," about 1,300 barrels of Shell oil are estimated to have spilled into Britain’s North Sea from a leaking pipeline at a Royal Dutch Shell platform since Aug. 10. "This is a significant spill in the context of annual amounts of oil spilled in the North Sea," said Glen Cayley, technical director of Shell's exploration and production activities in Europe, while talking to The Wall Street Journal.

After watching oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico for months while BP responded by attempting to plug the blowout with golf balls and other materials, experts and activists called for offshore drilling reforms to prevent a similar oil spill catastrophe elsewhere. These proposed reforms – legislative, administrative and scientific – largely have not materialized.  BOEMRE, however, is charging forward without so much as an Environmental Impact Statement for Beaufort drilling that would help officials assess what resources would be harmed by a major Shell oil spill.

Shell says it is trying to prevent oil spills, but that’s not good enough. Like its industry counterparts, Shell lacks the ability to deal with an oil spill in the Arctic. Even under the best conditions, cleaning up a spill fully is impossible. In the case of the current oil spill north of Scotland, Shell is simply allowing wave action to disperse the spill. In the Arctic, where ice, wind and frigid temperatures make for a brutal working environment, it’s even more unlikely that more than a small percentage of spilled oil would be recovered.

But what about a late-season oil spill that occurs as weather worsens and sea ice forms, making an effective spill response virtually impossible? Shell's answer to this problem is to leave the spilled oil where it is until spring comes and the ice thaws.  This “leave it in place” plan is no plan at all.

The simple reality is that offshore drilling in the Arctic cannot be done responsibly with existing spill response technologies, and BOEMRE’s decision to grant Shell a conditional permit puts the environment and residents of the region--who rely on subsistence--at risk of irreparable damages.