Calling Conditions ‘Benign,’ Shell Halts Offshore Arctic Drilling After One Day Because Of Massive Ice Sheet

by Michael Conathan

After five years of waiting and billions of dollars invested, Peter Slaiby, Shell Oil’s Vice President for Alaska, gushed to the Alaska Daily News last Sunday, that he was “happy, happy, happy” his company had driven its first drill bit into the floor of the Chukchi Sea.

Now it seems Slaiby’s delight about offshore drilling in the Arctic may have been short-lived.

Yesterday, just one day after beginning its long awaited drilling operations, Shell suspended drilling due to a massive ice pack covering approximately 360 square miles drifting toward the site. Its trajectory has forced the oil giant to disconnect its drilling ship, costing the company at least one of just 15 days it has been allowed to drill before the government will force operations to shut down for the winter.

The arrival of this titanic ice sheet just days after Shell received permits from the Department of the Interior to begin drilling is yet another reminder of the inherent peril of operating in such a remote and extreme environment — and it contradicts Shell’s insistence that its operations will not pose a threat.

Addressing the World Ocean Conference in Singapore last February, Shell International Senior Adviser  Robert Blaauw insisted his company’s operations would be “benign”:

When there will be drilling, there will be drilling in open water seas and when the conditions are benign – more benign than the Gulf of Mexico – in shallow water in 24-hour daylight.  And we’ll stop drilling actually more than a month before the ice comes back.

For the record, when Shell’s drill bit first hit the ocean floor at 4:30 AM local time, it was dark. The sun didn’t rise that day until 7:11 AM.

As a report and short documentary video from the Center for American Progress points out, responding to an oil spill in the Arctic would be a daunting challenge even in the best case scenario Blaauw describes. In a region with virtually non-existent infrastructure or support facilities, there would simply be no way to house, feed, and supply the workforce that would be necessary to clean up a large-scale spill. And scientists know very little about how oil would affect the Arctic environment.

The decision to suspend operations must be particularly frustrating to Shell because it has already taken far longer than the company would have liked to get to this point. Sea ice has remained in the area longer than anticipated, and a series of gaffes — from failed Coast Guard inspections to a drilling rig slipping its mooring — prevented the company from receiving its permits and commencing operations in early August as it had anticipated.

Shell has petitioned the government for an extension of its drilling season beyond the September 24 deadline because its scientists predicted that sea ice would be later than anticipated coming back to the region. Given these latest developments, it seems granting such an extension would be rather ill-advised.

With the clock ticking and a massive ice sheet bearing down on their drill site, it seems Shell may not have as much room to operate as they originally thought.

Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at the Center for American Progress.

19 Responses to Calling Conditions ‘Benign,’ Shell Halts Offshore Arctic Drilling After One Day Because Of Massive Ice Sheet

  1. Joan Savage says:

    Shell depended on satellites to receive forewarning of the ice pack’s shift in their direction. This reminds me of that question posted on Climate Progress many months ago to stretch our imaginations about what could be the “unknown unknowns” in our future.

    Next year is predicted to be high solar activity, and one of the possible outcomes is a solar storm that knocks out satellite communication for a few days or longer.
    What if Shell were drilling next year when a solar storm could knock out satellites?
    Shell would be working blind, and if the wind shifted the ice, would Shell stop in time?

    The scenario of lost satellites could also apply to losing a forewarning of tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

    Those risks are huge, and could reasonably distract us from the the other risks attending use of fossil fuel, anyway.

  2. john c. wilson says:

    The various sea ice maps do not show what Shell claims. The best view, from LANCE_MODIS, is presently obscured by clouds. There is a small amount of new coastal ice off Alaska but that is absolutely normal for this time of year and could not be called massive. Anything as big as a 350 square mile sheet should show on all the maps. If Shell has photos I’ll believe it. More likely this is corporate BS to obscure other problems they’re having. And propaganda to make us think the Arctic is still full of ice,which it is not.

  3. The climate conspiracists are hailing this as “proof” that the Arctic is not melting.

  4. Drilling in the Arctic? Mother Nature says ‘no.’

  5. BillD says:

    What is the plan when a massive ice sheet is heading toward an operating rig? Can they temporarily close the well and move the rig?

  6. GeoG says:

    @john c. wilson
    They are likely using a combination of Active Microwave (think RADARSAT-2 synthetic aperture radar) and Passive Microwave (such as the SSM/I) which both can see through clouds. For an example see the NSIDC ice products page:

  7. Artful Dodger says:

    Shell hasn’t received permission yet to drill deep enough to strike oil. The permit issued by the Dept of Interior on Aug 31, 2012 only allows preparations for the blow-out preventer and a shallow well.

    Shell will not receive permission to drill into oil-bearing strata until its containment barge is certified by the Coast Guard, and arrives onsite. The “Arctic Challenger” is currently in Bellingham, Washington over 3,200 miles away.

    Shell is just looking to save face in 2012. No oil this year, folks.

  8. Artful Dodger says:

    Bang on, John. It’s spin, pure and simple. They haven’t got their containment barge, and they haven’t got permission to drill deep enough to find oil.

    “Even though Shell is approved to drill, the company has to steer clear of oil and gas layers until their oil spill containment barge arrives. The Arctic Challenger is under construction in Bellingham, Washington. Sea trials are scheduled for the weekend, but the barge still needs some work.”

    Can we trust these people to act responsibly? I don’t think so. Definitely not worth the risk.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It’s already a comedy (tragedy) of errors and with everything becoming more unpredicable by the minute, Shell may quietly decide it’s not worth the candle, particularly with the world watching every move, ME

  10. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    The university of bremmen map shows no sea ice coverage for at least 500 miles from the alaskan coast, and the water temperatures are quite warm, it is hard to believe that a section of ice approximately 60 by 60 miles just drifted off what’s left of the main ice pack and survived the trip. Are there any storms in the area, and are they capable of moving such a large section of ice so fast without melting it? Would shell lie like this when they can get caught so easily?

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, john-I’d concur on both points, particularly the crapulous garbage about ‘massive’ ice-sheets. Scurvy denialist bulldust, certain to be reproduced across the denialist moronosphere.

  12. stuart klipper says:

    One would hope that someone engaged in these issues could at least get the terminology correct. Ice sheets sit on landmasses not bodies of water.

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  14. Ian Forrester says:

    Another confusing “fact” that is being claimed is that the “ice flow” is over 80 feet thick. That just does not make any sense at all. As others have said it is all spin, I think they ran into problems on their drill ship and are using this as an excise to pull up anchor and move.

  15. Ian Forrester says:

    Bill in the Hibernia Field off the coast of Newfoundland they often had to move the drilling ships when an iceberg came sailing by (of course nothing that is supposedly 360 square miles in area). They moved the smaller ones with tugs.

    The production platform is a special gravity-base structure strong enough to withstand a collision with a one-million-ton iceberg (expected to occur once every 500 years) and a direct hit from a six-million-ton iceberg (expected just once every 10,000 years).

  16. John McCormick says:

    Absolute crap and the height of lousy, amateurish reporting.

    Anyone can see the Arctic ice melt back has left the Chukchi Sea entirely devoid of ice. No ice there. No ice anywhere near the Chukchi Sea.

    What is wrong with Shell? Does its management have no shame? Or, do they hope we are really stupid and willing to believe anything they say?

  17. Paul Hawley says:

    Speaking of losing satellites——weather-related orbiters are on the chopping block in Congress, especially polar orbiters. Just sayin’ …

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  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s not ‘reporting’-it’s lying, pure and simple.