By Kiley Kroh
After a year full of mishaps and failures in its quest to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell announced today that it would not pursue exploratory drilling activity in the Arctic Ocean this year. The decision comes as the Obama administration nears the end of its high-level, 60-day review of Shell’s troubled Arctic drilling program, which was announced on January 8.
Last year was fraught with problems for Shell as the company attempted the first Arctic offshore exploratory drilling activity in decades. Technical failures, permit violations, struggles with the harsh and unpredictable Arctic conditions, and warnings from a wide range of voices all combined to discredit the company’s claims that such operations could be carried out safely and responsibly.
Shell made clear it sees this announcement as a hiatus, not a cancellation of its plans to tap the Arctic reserves. Marvin Odum, Shell’s Director of Upstream Americas said, “Our decision to pause in 2013 will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012.”
Following mishaps this year, both of the company’s Arctic drilling rigs, the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer, require substantial repairs and will be towed to Asia. The Kulluk was damaged when it was grounded near Kodiak, Alaska on New Year’s Eve and the Noble Discoverer was recently cited for multiple safety and environmental violations — now the subject of an investigation that was handed over to the Department of Justice this week.
As articulated in the recent op-ed co-authored by John Podesta and Carol Browner, the Center for American Progress was open to the possibility of offshore drilling in this remote region provided the Administration took significant steps to strengthen safeguards and improve response capacity, and the industry could demonstrate it was prepared for the extreme risk. Instead, Shell proved precisely the opposite — the oil and gas industry is not prepared for the enormous challenge of drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
As we’ve detailed numerous times, there is a tremendous and incalculable risk associated with any offshore operations in the Arctic. First, the region lacks even the basic infrastructure that would be necessary to mount a large-scale response to an oil spill or other major incident — roads, major airports, ports, a permanent Coast Guard facility, adequate facilities to house and feed responders. These obstacles, coupled with the extreme and volatile conditions in which companies would be operating, led the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London to warn companies that responding to an oil spill in a region “highly sensitive to damage” would present “multiple obstacles, which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk.” And Total SA, the fifth largest oil and gas company in the world, announced it wouldn’t seek to drill in the Arctic because an accident there would be a “disaster.”
Rushing into Arctic offshore drilling is not an imperative and thus should not be attempted unless and until independent auditors determine the industry and the government are capable of acting responsibly and responding to a true worst-case scenario. No operation is foolproof, but when even the most carefully watched drilling operations repeatedly fail to attain safety certification, then are hit with routine air pollution violations, and marred by twice letting major pieces of equipment be cast adrift, the American people have no reason to continue taking oil companies at their word when they tell us they can operate safely and responsibly in this remote and dangerous region.
The Center for American Progress released the following statement yesterday from its chair John Podesta, responding to Royal Dutch Shell’s decision to suspend its drilling operations in the Arctic:
Today’s announcement is a reminder that the industry does not yet have the adequate technology to operate safely in this remote and harsh environment. One company hitting the pause button will not mitigate the risks involved, the Department of the Interior should hit the stop button to prevent any oil and gas drilling from taking place in the Arctic Ocean.
- TIMELINE: Documenting Shell’s 2012 Arctic Drilling Debacle
- Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling
- VIDEO: The Risks of Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean
— Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director for Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress