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.