Shell’s Sketchy Arctic Spill Plan

Our guest blogger is Emilie Surrusco, Communications Director, Alaska Wilderness League.

Royal Dutch Shell’s quarterly earnings report includes numbers that are almost too big to comprehend – profits of $7 billion in just the last three months, or $2.3 billion in the last month, or $583 million in the last week, or $83 million on Thursday.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll never see the amount of money Shell makes in one day in my entire lifetime. Granted, they are a huge multinational corporation with a budget that is bigger than many nation states. I’m a mere mortal. But with that much money — just in profits alone — you’d think that a multinational corporation like Shell could move mountains. Or at least step up to the challenge of putting together a viable plan to clean up an oil spill in one of the world’s most extreme, remote places — the Arctic Ocean.

Instead, Shell has put forward an oil spill response plan that looks like a fancy cut and paste job from the spill plans of yesteryear. (Remember BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill plan? The one that talked about walrus in Louisiana’s warm, tropical waters? Those are the plans I’m talking about.) It looks to me like Shell didn’t even bother spending a day’s profits on their spill plan for the Arctic. Instead, they’ve piled millions into PR about how great the plan is.

Shell’s latest Arctic P.R. scheme barely costs them a minute’s worth of profits. They recently announced that they will donate $5,000 in Inupiat language preservation grants to an Arctic community school that comes up with the best Inupiat name for one of the drill rigs they plan to use to drill 10 wells in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

But back to Shell’s plan to clean up an oil spill in waters completely covered by sea ice nine months of the year (and partially covered the other three months) — in an environment where temperatures plunge well below zero, there is no sunlight and where more often than not, hurricane force winds cause icebergs the size of apartment buildings to move at 40 mph. The Arctic gives foreboding a new zip code.

Here are some of the highlights of Shell’s plan:

– Shell assumes that it can recover an unprecedented 95 percent of oil spilled in Arctic water using mechanical containment and recovery efforts (like booms and skimmers), despite the fact that such efforts only recovered 8 percent of oil after the Exxon Valdez spill, and only 3 percent of oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

– A 2000 spill drill in the Arctic (the last public spill drill) showed that traditional mechanical recovery techniques were a complete “failure.”

– Shell only plans for a “worst case” spill in relatively warm and ice-free August conditions despite the fact that Shell wants to drill through late October, when ice, darkness and bad weather prevail.

– After more than a year, Shell still has not completed the design of its capping and containment structure to collect oil from a leaking well. This technology has never been used in the Arctic, raising serious concerns as to whether it could be deployed, or would work in the icy waters of the Arctic.

– Shell claims it clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions, but environmental conditions in the Arctic can sometimes make it impossible to respond to an offshore oil spill. A recent Canadian response gap study concluded that spill countermeasures are often not possible due to environmental conditions that prevail during the proposed drilling season and no response is possible for the seven to eight months of winter.

Despite all this, the Obama administration continues to approve Shell’s plans to drill in America’s Arctic. With no viable plan to clean up an oil spill, in a marine environment about which so little is known — except for the fact that it is already greatly imperiled by climate change — Shell is taking an irresponsible gamble with our one and only Arctic. They aren’t interested in making sure that the Inupiat people have a future or that polar bears, ice seals, walrus, beluga whales and more don’t become relics of the past. They don’t care if the Arctic — our planet’s air conditioner –- is destroyed. No, as we all know, Shell is only interested in making their billions.

Right now, there are several imminent decisions about Shell’s Arctic drilling on the table. The Obama administration has the chance to make it clear that reckless, substandard drilling plans are not acceptable.

It is up to the Obama administration to stop Shell, before it’s too late.

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