by Michael Conathan
It’s tough sledding in the oil business these days. Federal subsidies integral to keeping quarterly profit margins in the double-digit billions are constantly under attack, meaning the industry must hand out millions in campaign donations to keep them in place.
Gasoline prices plummeted almost two whole percentage points in the second quarter of this year. And, for proponents who want to see every square inch of the U.S. open to drilling, the Department of Interior didn’t do enough when it granted access to 75 percent of all offshore deposits to the oil industry.
The latest slap in the face is that the Department of Interior has become such a stickler about drilling safety that Shell Oil has been forced to request a two-week extension of its proposed drilling season in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea.
It’s like regulators remember some kind of horrible accident that happened just a couple years ago or something. Except that these operations would be carried out in a region with no infrastructure, no permanent response capacity, and virtually no significant scientific knowledge about how oil will behave in freezing conditions — deficiencies exposed in a video released last week by the Center for American Progress.
Why the need for the extension? While sea ice in the region has lingered later than anyone expected — striking considering that Arctic sea ice in general is at an all-time low — the areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi where Shell plans to drill have until recently remained too ice-choked to allow safe navigation of drilling ships and equipment.
But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stated unequivocally earlier this month, if a key piece of Shell’s drill response equipment had managed to pass Coast Guard inspection, “[Shell] may already be up there today.”
In other words, the company’s reason to request an extension is the same proffered by any college student who partied a little too much, slacked off on his research, and overslept. They just didn’t get it done. So now, their solution is to ask the government to let them drill longer into winter.
Let’s get this straight. The main reason for the delay is that the company couldn’t make its own ships shipshape. The secondary reason is that there was too much ice. So Shell’s solution is to operate later into the fall, even though the government has already told them it’s not safe. At that time of year, it will be darker more often, the weather in the region is increasingly unpredictable, and temperatures will be dropping — meaning there’s likely to be more ice.
As the Los Angeles Times reported:
[Peter E. Slaiby, Shell’s Vice President for its Arctic venture] said the company’s latest models for forecasting the onset of winter sea ice now show the first freeze-up occurring somewhat later than originally envisioned when federal officials imposed their initial deadline for ending operations in the Chukchi Sea.
Well, if Shell’s data says everything should be fine, then I’m sure it’ll all work out for the best.
Maybe if they pull this one off they’ll finally muster up the gumption to ask the federal government to subsidize their operations so they can keep gas prices artificially low, making it easier for us to burn more gas, meaning Arctic ice can melt faster, letting them drill for more oil.
Oh, wait … they already do that.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.
Watch the video below to see why drilling in the Arctic is such a risky affair: