Shell’s Failed Arctic Experiment

Domenique Zuber
Date: January 7, 2013
Shell's drill barge Kulluk drifted aground off Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska on December 31, 2012.

Shell ended its 2012 Arctic drilling season with a bang. On New Year’s Eve, one of its drill rigs—the Kulluk— ran aground near Kodiak Island, Alaska, in a severe winter storm while carrying 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products.

Tow vessels were moving the Kulluk, which has no propulsion system of its own, to Seattle for the winter. First, the tow vessel’s engines failed. Then the tow line failed. Then multiple efforts to reestablish the tow line failed. Finally, the drill rig was left to run aground.

Shell’s last mishap of 2012 is only the latest in a long line of failures that clearly demonstrate Shell’s incompetence and inability to drill safely in the Arctic. Shell’s other fiascoes during the 2012 drilling season include:

  • The oil giant’s other drill rig, the Noble Discoverer, slipped an anchor and nearly ran aground in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, while on its way to the drill site in the Chukchi Sea in July. In November, its engine caught fire. In December, the Coast Guard detained the rig, which was built in 1966, for safety and pollution discrepancies.
  • Shell’s oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, failed to meet U.S. Coast Guard safety standards and cannot be certified as seaworthy until the company addresses some 400 technical problems. The 36-year old barge was meant to be positioned between the two Arctic drill rigs in case of a spill, but instead was forced to remain in Bellingham, Washington. While at port in Washington, the barge had four illegal fluid spills and the oil spill containment dome failed miserably during pre-deployment testing in relatively benign weather conditions.
  • Shell backtracked on its statement that it would be able to clean up 95 percent of a major oil spill, saying instead that it would only “encounter” that much.
  • The oil giant campaigned for special treatment by the Environmental Protection Agency, which granted Shell permission to violate the Clean Air Act and exceed air pollution limits in the Arctic for one year.
  • Finally, Shell had to abandon its preliminary drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea within 24 hours when a 30-mile long ice sheet moved into the area.

The recent grounding of the Kulluk, and all the failures that have preceded it, are clear evidence that the challenges faced by Arctic drilling are too severe to allow for safe offshore oil and gas drilling.

How many accidents need to occur before everyone realizes that drilling can’t be done safely in the Arctic? The risks are simply too great to allow Shell to continue to gamble with the health of communities and the environment.