Shell Clarifies: It Can ‘Encounter’ 95 Percent Of An Arctic Oil Spill, Not Collect It

Oiled boom lies across sea ice in Norway after a cargo ship ran aground and leaked heavy oil. Photo by Jon Terje Hellgren Hansen / Greenpeace, Feb 24, 2011.

by Joe Smyth

As Shell’s rigs head toward the Arctic to exploit melting sea ice to drill for more oil, the company took a small step this weekend in clarifying what would happen in an oil spill during the company’s planned Arctic drilling operations this summer.

Despite the oil industry’s spin, experts know it is impossible to recover more than a small fraction of a major marine oil spill, as retired Coast Guard Admiral Roger Rufe told NPR: “But once oil is in the water, it’s a mess. And we’ve never proven anywhere in the world — let alone in the ice — that we’re very good at picking up more than 3 or 5 or 10 percent of the oil once it’s in the water.”

So how is it possible, according to the New York Times, that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar “said he believed the company’s claims that it could collect at least 90 percent of any oil spilled in the event of a well blowout.” These sorts of claims have raised eyebrows among advocates and scientists who study offshore oil drilling — they aren’t just unbelievable, they’re laughably, outrageously impossible. NPR’s Richard Harris cuts through Shell’s spin, and explains what these numbers really mean:

“They have a miniscule number of boats compared to what was available in the Gulf of Mexico,” [Peter Van Tuyn, and environmental lawyer in Anchorage] says, and in the Gulf, “they didn’t have to deal with the extreme weather conditions that we’ve got in the Arctic.” High winds are the norm, and sea ice is always a possible hazard, “and yet they [Shell] claim they can collect as much as 95 percent.”

Merrell says the company has made no such claim. Instead, he says, the oil company’s plan is to confront 95 percent of the oil out in the open water, before it comes ashore. That doesn’t mean responders can collect what they encounter.

“Because the on-scene conditions can be so variable, it would be rather ridiculous of us to make any kind of performance guarantee,” Merrell says.

While discussing the same issue with the Associated Press, Shell PR folks take another word out for a spin, and even try to blame “opposition groups” for this confusion:

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said opposition groups are purposely mischaracterizing Shell’s oil spill response plan. The plan does not claim Shell can clean up 90 percent of an oil spill, he said.

“We say in our plan we expect to ‘encounter’ 90 percent of any discharge on site — very close to the drilling rig,” he said. “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.”

Where Shell plans to drill in the Arctic, those conditions include 20 foot swells, hurricane force winds, sea ice, and months of total darkness, and all without deep water ports or other infrastructure needed to mount a major oil spill response. But let’s put that aside for a moment, to make sure we’re not mischaracterizing here: Shell expects to “encounter” or “confront” 90% of the spilled oil and another 5% the company plans to — rendezvous? — with elsewhere in the ocean, while the remaining 5% Shell might — happen upon? — on shore. How much of that oil might be recovered, collected, or, you know, removed from the environment? Well, Shell says conditions vary, so making a performance guarantee would be rather ridiculous.

In the relatively calm conditions of the Gulf of Mexico, with thousands of response vessels, only a small fraction was recovered from the BP oil disaster. Despite shameful efforts to spin its announcement, a government report found that 4% of the oil was skimmed, and another 6% was burned. And as oil spill expert Rick Steiner observes, even those estimates might be too high, and burning oil isn’t really removing it from the environment: “It either went into the air as atmospheric emissions, and some of that is pretty toxic stuff, or there’s a residue from burning crude that sinks to the ocean floor, sometimes in big thick mats.”

Exxon Valdez oil in 2012. Photo courtesy of David Janka, taken on May 24, 2012 on Eleanor Island, Prince William Sound, Alaska.

And the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound? Steiner explains in “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill a Cautionary Tale for Arctic Ocean Drilling:

And today, 23 years later, most of the fish and wildlife populations and habitats injured by the spill have yet to fully recover, and there is still residual, toxic oil in beach sediments. It is becoming evident that the injured Alaska coastal ecosystem may never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez spill.”

What of the promised “state-of-the-art spill response”? Despite a three-year, $2 billion effort by Exxon, the response was a spectacular failure, recovering less than 7 percent of the spilled oil.

Oil that Exxon might have “encountered” decades ago, still remains today, as do the impacts to the ecosystem and the wildlife and communities that depend upon it.

Joe Smyth is a Media Officer with Greenpeace.

5 Responses to Shell Clarifies: It Can ‘Encounter’ 95 Percent Of An Arctic Oil Spill, Not Collect It

  1. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And the Exxon Valdez, full of toxic chemicals and asbestos has just been dumped on India, Gujarat to be precise, to be cut up by unprotected labour, in open contempt of Indian Supreme Court orders.

  2. EDpeak says:

    For the irony-challenged, where you wrote,

    “As Shell’s rigs head toward the Arctic to exploit melting sea ice to drill for more oil,”

    it should say,

    “As Shell’s rigs head towards the Arctic to exploit melting sea ice to drill for more oil, the very burning of which, over recent decades, has led to the Arctic warming strongly tied to this melting sea ice now exploited to allow the drilling for, and future burning of, yet more oil….”

    Chilling (no pun intended) quote from Rufe, underscoring in more detail what we all already knew the basics of..

    And if the spill happens while a Democrat is president? It will be used for right-wing attack ads to help replace him or her by an even more right-wing, Republican, even more oil friendly President. And if a Republican is in office, it will cause a ‘greenwashing’ set of promises to fix things but also provide an excuse for more privatization, tax cuts, etc, etc (the ‘answer’ always stay the same, not matter what the facts are)

    Either way: a deadlni POSITIVE FEEDBACK.

    Just like we have seen other deadly positive feedbacks:

    Right wing (including by some conservative Democrats) policies of deregulation —> Great Recession happens —> Enables even more right-wing policies of austerity and attacks on the middle class and poor.

    Right wing (including by some conservative Democrats) policies of deregulation —> Great Recession happens —> Used in anti-Obama attack ads, “he’s not helped the economy! Socialist! Commie! Boo!” and —>Elect even more right-wing President and congress who will set up the next wave of economic disasters, which will lead to either more ‘disaster capitalism’ (as populazied by N Klein) attacks on the 99% or as attacks against a Democrat if in office, either way leading to another vicious positive feedback.

    The older types of vicious positive political feedbacks into ever more right wing (start a war –> occupy –> occupation leads to regular suicide bombs –> use that a the ‘reason’ why we must stay and be more militaristic when the attacks are the result of the occupation itself) and the ones associated with domestic politices like a Police State, many of us are already familiar with…time to notice the more creeping economic strangulation of the middle class, this latest version, as another chapter of this vicious positive feedback.

    Yes, I know, if I move to EU or UK or AU or NZ there are attack there too, but at least they are starting in a slightly less hot room in hell as they too work to decend ever deeper into ever hotter pits of conservative reactionary politices at home and abroad. On that cheerful note, have a great day! ;-)

  3. David Collet says:

    ‘State of the Art’ response is not a lie.

    If the ‘State of the Art’ is caveman paintings on cave walls – we can do that.

    Problem is – this phrase is used to hide a plethora of sins.

    Otherwise known as ‘spin’.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ED, you have it. We are caught in a death-spiral because the Right are engaged in a bizarre process of devolution, where all higher characteristics, of intelligence, morality, human compassion etc, have been purged, and each new generation of Rightwing propagandists and politicians is more deranged and depraved than the one before. We have recently had a number of Rightwing regimes elected in our states of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and their sheer, visceral, hatred of Greenies and any environmental restraints on open slather destruction and profit-gouging is truly frightening. They take a little time out, too, to grovel before the rich and find ever more sadistic and hateful measures to impose on the poor, the weak and despised outgroups, and the Murdoch hate machine is behind them, 110%, every inch of the way.

  5. David Pilsworth says:

    I find it absolutely amazing that Ken Salazar bought Shell’s spin so unquestioningly. He looked like an absolute fool parroting their 95% claim the other day, and he made it even worse by saying there would never be a spill.

    It’s one thing to grin and bear an unscientific and crass decision for the sake of political expediency. Quite another to lose your judgement completely to do the bidding of a multinational oil company.