Shell’s Failed Arctic Oil Spill Equipment: ‘Breached Like A Whale’ And ‘Crushed Like A Beer Can’

by Kiley Kroh

After struggling to get the last of their drilling equipment out of the Beaufort Sea as winter sea ice encroached, it appeared the long list of criticisms and setbacks that marked Shell’s first Arctic Ocean drilling season had come to an end.

That respite was very brief.

Seattle’s NPR affiliate KUOW has released internal emails between Interior Department officials, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, detailing Shell’s failed test of underwater oil spill response equipment. Shell and the federal government kept a close hold on the specifics of what exactly went wrong during the test – and now it’s clear why.

The September sea trial was conducted in the temperate waters of Puget Sound – a long way from the harsh Arctic conditions in which it would be deployed – and was expected to last about day. As KUOW reports, the end result was a complete disaster:

  • Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at BSEE headquarters.

Then the dome sinks more than 120 feet. A safety buoy, basically a giant balloon, catches it before it hits bottom. About 12 hours later, the crew of the Challenger manages to get the dome back to the surface. “As bad as I thought,” Fesmire writes his BSEE colleague. “Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”

The oil spill containment dome is an important piece of response equipment that would capture spilled oil in the event of an uncontrolled blowout similar to the one that led to the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Shell first unveiled plans for its oil spill containment system back in 2010, saying it had “designed and equipped the most robust oil spill response system in the Arctic known to the industry.”

As we’ve detailed numerous times, the region’s extreme and volatile conditions, coupled with the dearth of infrastructure and scientific knowledge, add an enormous and unpredictable amount of risk to any Arctic operations. And these warnings aren’t just coming from environmental groups – a major insurance company, bank, legislative body, and even a fellow oil major have added their concerns to the growing chorus of opposition. Therefore, the importance of preparedness cannot be understated and Shell’s track record to date is far from comforting.

Perhaps the greatest irony in the rush to drill the Arctic Ocean is the fact that climate change – the direct result of rampant burning of fossil fuels – is being felt more acutely in the Arctic than any place on Earth, manifesting itself in unprecedented warming and ice melt. The response? Digging up more fossil fuels, which will be burned and emitted into the atmosphere as CO2, perpetuating the destructive cycle. In order to avoid catastrophic warming, the International Energy Agency estimates that we’ll need to leave 2/3rds of global carbon reserves in the ground before 2050.

Continuing on our current path of fossil fuel consumption will drive oil companies into some of the most extreme conditions on the planet, like the fragile Arctic Ocean – a frightening prospect not just for the people and ecosystems that are threatened by their unpreparedness, but also the urgent need to curb our carbon emissions and slow climate change.

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

5 Responses to Shell’s Failed Arctic Oil Spill Equipment: ‘Breached Like A Whale’ And ‘Crushed Like A Beer Can’

  1. Zach says:

    Isn’t testing oil-spill prevention/mitigation strategies — particularly testing in collaboration with regulatory agencies — something that we ought to be applauding? It’s totally appropriate to report on this stuff, but on the whole it’s encouraging to see regulators are actually demanding the right tests before the next round of record-breaking deep-sea-or-otherwise-extreme drilling.

    I doubt connecting Arctic drilling hazards to Arctic ice melt will do much to move the public-opinion needle when it comes to support for American and global policy changes needed to actually slow or stop climate change. Rather, over-the-top criticism of failed tests will incentivize Shell and others to figure out how to shield testing from the FOIA laws. In the wake of Deepwater Horizon, isn’t it a good thing that companies are exploring new containment/prevention mechanisms rather than using the ones that were apparently good enough for regulators but tragically failed?

    Even in an ideal world in which the world comes together to tax or otherwise regulate GHG emissions as much as we need, it will eventually be economical to drill extract deepwater/arctic oil. Even if some incredible GHG-free power source comes along, we’ll still use chemicals from fossil fuels to make plastics, etc. It’s hard to see how shaming Shell for a failed test moves the ball forward, but it’s easy to see how it incentives more secrecy.

  2. John Hollenberg says:

    > Shell and the federal government kept a close hold on the specifics of what exactly went wrong during the test – and now it’s clear why.

    I can understand why Shell wouldn’t want this info to get out, but why should OUR government be keeping this information from the public?

  3. Brooks Bridges says:

    Uh, $$$$ in campaign contributions from Oil companies?

  4. Are you sure it’s “our” government? Maybe the government belongs to the oilagarchy.

  5. Earl Richards says:

    Shell should be permitted to drill on the Alaskan offshore, until Shell cleans-up it mess in the Nigerian delta.