Shell: A Series of Broken Promises Spells Trouble for the Arctic

This is a guest post by Dan Ritzman, Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club.

Shell aground
Shell’s drilling rig running aground in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, July 14, 2012.

“We recognize that industry’s license to operate in the offshore is predicated on being able to operate in a safe, environmentally sound manner. Shell’s commitment to those basic principles is unwavering. Our Alaska Exploration Plans and Oil Spill Response Plans will continually be guided by our extensive Arctic expertise, solid scientific understanding of the environment and world-class capabilities,” said Pete Slaiby, VP Alaska.

For months, maybe years, this is the basic message we have heard from the Shell Oil public relations machine — trust us, we are doing everything we can possibly do to make sure we are not polluting the environment and that we will be ready to clean up our oil spills in the Arctic Ocean. Recent events seem to tell a different story as Shell breaks promise after promise on drilling safety.

Over the past 10 days I have been floating down the Canning River which forms the western boundary of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During my trip I encountered wolves, river otters, the rare yellow billed loon and thousands of caribou that were hanging out in the Canning River delta at the edge of the Arctic Ocean — like me they were enjoying the stiff breeze that kept the millions of mosquitoes at bay.

When I left on the trip I knew that Shell’s drill ships, the Kulluk and Nobel Discoverer, were on their way north and that when I reached the end of my float I would only be a few miles away from the spot Shell plans to drill some of their exploratory wells this summer. While I was sitting on the edge of North America looking off into the still frozen Beaufort Sea it saddened me to think that in a few weeks Shell could begin drilling out there, placing all that I was looking at and all of the wildlife I had seen at risk from oil spills and other pollution.

When I returned to civilization, with my email and smart phone, I discovered that Shell still did not have all of their needed permits and that they were trying to take short-cuts that could damage the Arctic’s amazing wildlife and treasured landscapes, along with the Alaska Native people who depend on them.

A few weeks ago Shell started backtracking on its promises for oil spill response in the Arctic.  In its cleanup plans, Shell based its near-shore and shoreline cleanup equipment on the assumption it can recover 95 percent of any oil spilled in the ocean.  Now the company is suggesting that what it actually meant is that it will be able to “encounter” 95 percent of any oil spilled.

And then there is Shell’s oil spill containment equipment.  Last year, Shell committed to ensuring its oil spill recovery barge, the Arctic Challenger, would be able to withstand a 100-year storm. But now Shell is only planning to upgrade the 37-year-old barge to withstand a 10-year storm, despite the challenging conditions of the Arctic. The company has yet to meet even these reduced standards.

Shell has also submitted an application to amend its air permit for the Discoverer drill rig, requesting that it be excused from the pollution reductions it promised to achieve.  Though the company has known for quite a while that it can’t meet the pollution levels in the permit, the oil giant has only now just acknowledged it – weeks before its planned drilling is supposed to commence.

Recently we saw the beginning of the real impacts of Shell’s empty promises. Its Discoverer drill ship almost ran aground while moored in Dutch Harbor. A “stiff breeze” pushed the vessel within feet of the shore in front of Dutch Harbor’s Grand Aleutian Hotel. That “stiff breeze”—35 mph with four-foot waves– pales in comparison to the gale force winds and 25-foot seas the Discoverer could encounter in the drilling area.

Allowing Shell to drill in the Arctic is proving to be an increasingly poor gamble. The company has a disturbing pattern of making promises that it can’t meet – then begging for exceptions when it can’t follow the rules.

Shell has said their plans are second-to-none for drilling in a place where hurricane-force storms, sub-zero temperatures and ever-changing sea ice conditions are commonplace. Yet the plans are unraveling before our eyes, leaving the public with line of broken promises and a list of new reasons why America’s Arctic should not be entrusted to Big Oil.

Please join me in asking President Obama, EPA Director Lisa Jackson, and DOI Secretary Salazar to step in and protect the Arctic. Tell them they need to hold Shell to their promises and protect the polar bears, yellow-billed loons and other incredible residents of America’s Arctic.

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