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