Shell Postpones Arctic Offshore Drilling For The Year Due To Technical Problems And Rough Ice Conditions

Photo: Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

by Kiley Kroh

Today, Shell Oil announced it will postpone efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean after the company’s oil spill response barge failed another round of testing. The company says it will resume operations next year.

The decision to halt operations comes a week after the company began preparatory drilling in the Chukchi Sea – and was forced to suspend operations just one day later due to a massive ice pack covering approximately 360 square miles drifting toward the site.

The ongoing problems with the company’s oil containment barge, a critical piece of oil spill response equipment, is just the latest in a series of setbacks in Shell’s quest to tap oil under the Arctic Ocean. These problems raise serious questions about its preparedness to drill in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.

Though Shell has vowed to spend the remainder of the season drilling as many “top holes” as possible in order to quickly resume drilling operations next year, the most glaring challenges will not dissipate. As detailed in the Center for American Progress report, Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic, the dearth of supporting infrastructure throughout Alaska’s North Slope — including ports, roads, railroads, and permanent Coast Guard facilities — coupled with the lack of sound science and extremely volatile conditions make offshore operations extremely difficult and hazardous. The remote location, harsh and unpredictable conditions, and absence of proven clean-up technologies designed for Arctic conditions would make large-scale response efforts nearly impossible.

Citing many of these challenges and deficiencies, insurance giant Lloyd’s of London issued a report earlier this year warning that responding to an oil spill in a region that is “highly sensitive to damage” would present “multiple obstacles, which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk.”  Soon after, German bank WestLB announced it would not provide financing to any offshore oil or gas drilling in the region, saying the “risks and costs are simply too high.”

The prospect of drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean – and the threat of an oil spill – has drawn the concerns of Alaska Natives who depend on the Arctic Ocean for their livelihood. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard and the scientific community have expressed doubts about the lack of knowledge about oil spills in the region.

After five years and $4.5 billion invested in Arctic Ocean drilling, Shell’s delayed drilling plan is an illustration of how difficult and dangerous it is to drill for oil in the world’s last great frontier.

Watch our recent documentary on these challenges in the Arctic:

Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Oceans Communications at the Center for American Progress.

8 Responses to Shell Postpones Arctic Offshore Drilling For The Year Due To Technical Problems And Rough Ice Conditions

  1. knoxkp says:

    It’s not a surprise that there’s massive amounts of sheared ice out there, so to speak. This year’s melt, as most who visit this site know, has been unprecedented. To give you an idea of how screwed we are and how unlikely that we can walk this back go take a look at the satellite images here:
    Plug in a day from Sept 1980 and one from Sept 2012 and compare. The idea that this is in any way debatable is of course insane.

  2. john c. wilson says:

    There is no reason whatever to keep supporting Shell’s claim of a 12 by 30 mile block of ice up to 25 meters thick. That would be called an ice island. They break off ice shelves. Ice islands that big are tracked. There is no such island anywhere near the Shell drill site. The photo that accompanies the article is not of the phantom Shell island.

    It does not make sense that this site should be providing free PR services to Shell Oil.

  3. John McCormick says:

    I agree John. We went thru this PR BS last week. Still lazy reporting….taking the word of Shell as fact.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    I wonder what will happen when an oil platform is hit by a methane bubble. There is a theory about the Bermuda Triangle and methane bubbles who alter buoyancy.

  5. roborgh says:

    Only last week Shell was set back in public press by the influence of the Greenpeace action in the Netherlands. Greenpeace blocked 80% of all Shell Highway petrol stations with chains and large labels on petrol fillers. For some 48 hours the Dutch could not fill their cars at Shell’s petrol stations. Greenpeace made this action to wake the Dutch public so they could see what Shell is up to do in the Arctic Sea. With it’s headquarters in the Netherlands, Shell was given a major strike in public press. Maybe…. this was also a small push in the direction of the decision that has now been taken bij Shell. I hope it was, because Shell has a ‘fine’ public name to lose.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely. I thought it was established that the ice island story was bulldust and was being used by the denialist vermin to deny this year’s record melt of Arctic sea summer ice. To see it repeated verbatim here is most annoying.

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    In the long running series between the oil companies and the planet in which oil has an overwhelming lead, it is nice to see the planet win one by sending in its strongest team, ME

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They will have to protest quick in Holland, then begin looking for a new home, because, like Bangladesh, Shanghai, half of Florida etc, they are doomed to inundation this half century.