Problems with Shell's Arctic Drilling Give Administration a Chance to Hit Pause

Royal Dutch Shell has started sending its oil drilling fleet into Alaska’s Arctic Ocean but left its spill response barge behind in Bellingham, Washington. The vessel is supposed to be positioned right between Shell’s two drilling sites in case of an oil spill. Yet the barge—a linchpin in Shell’s emergency response plan—still has too many problems to make the voyage north.

The Coast Guard won’t certify it because of wiring problems and fire hazards. It has experienced several small leaks while in port, alarming Shell’s own inspectors. And it has failed to meet the Coast Guards standard of weathering a 100-year storm in the Arctic. This set of circumstances hardly inspires confidence.

Shell asked the Coast Guard to weaken its standards to a 10-year storm event so the barge could pass muster. This follows on the company’s effort to backpedal from initial claims it could contain 90 to 95 percent of oil from a blowout. Now Shell is merely saying it will “encounter” or “confront” that much oil—rather than actually containing and cleaning up.

Shell is under tremendous scrutiny as it launches its first foray into Arctic waters—the harshest environment for offshore drilling. The company must put its best foot forward in order to win public trust and secure future drilling rights.

Instead, it is trying to lower the bar. If Shell is already asking for loopholes and exemptions in the nation’s drilling safeguards now, imagine what it might do when attention has moved on and its rigs are operating in the world’s last wild ocean. 

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NRDC does not agree with the Obama Administration’s decision to grant Shell preliminary approval to drill in the Arctic, but we appreciate the administration’s commitment to ensuring any offshore drilling in the region meets the strongest possible safeguards.

To live up to that commitment, the administration must send Shell back to the drawing board.

Now is the time. The Arctic drilling season only goes until September or October, and the company is already behind schedule due to heavy ice coverage in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The persistent problems with the spill response plan are further slowing operations down, as are additional mishaps—like the drill ship that become unmoored and nearly ran aground in the Aleutian Islands on its way to the Chukchi.

These problems and delays present an opportunity—and make it imperative—for the White House to tell Shell not to proceed with drilling this season. The company must get its house in order instead. It must develop a stronger spill response plan, prepare to capture more oil on site, and improve its ability to withstand harsh Arctic conditions.

The truth is that drilling in the Arctic Ocean harms and puts at risk one of the most pristine places left on Earth. Its stunning coastlines provide a home for Alaska’s Inupiaq people, and its chill waters nurture polar bears, ice seals, bowhead and beluga whales, and walrus. Its sweeping vistas offer a glimpse into a wild beauty that has almost been driven from the planet. We must not sacrifice one of our remaining untamed places in reckless pursuit of oil, especially when we have other options. The new clean car standards the administration is about to finalize, for instance, will cut America’s need to import oil by one-third.

Two years ago, Americans watched in horror as the systems we were promised would avert catastrophe by preventing or containing a blowout failed one by one. Little has changed since then. We must not let Shell plunge into a wild and irreplaceable region using faulty emergency vessels and inadequate emergency response plans. It’s time for the administration to step in and demand better.