Friday, 18 January 2013 09:59

Are we ready to drill in the Arctic?

Response crews have been fighting severe weather in the Gulf of Alaska while working with the Kulluk and its tow vessel Aiviq Response crews have been fighting severe weather in the Gulf of Alaska while working with the Kulluk and its tow vessel Aiviq Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg, United States Coast Guard

That’s the question you got to ask yourself, after yet another mishap in Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s attempt to drill on Alaska’s Arctic coast.

The drill ship Kulluk (i.e., "Thunder" in Inuktitut) broke free of a towboat in a storm Dec. 31 on it’s way to maintenance. The Kulluk drifted away and grounded on the Sitkalidak Island, 97 kilometres away. The Kulluk contains approximately 139,000 gallons of ultra-low sulphur diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluids. Fortunately, there were no ecological consequences as the Kulluk kept tight and didn’t leak. But what if we hadn’t been so lucky?

“Attempts at oil containment are futile in typical winter conditions,” said Andy Schroeder, executive director of the Island Trails Network in Kodiak, Alaska, and a former Coast Guard officer. The Sitkalidak Island have no airstrips, docks, permanent residents or paved roads which would have made cleaning up a spill even harder. The island has 20 salmon streams and is home to the Kodiak bear. “A break up of the rig or a spill in this area would dramatically impact the island and surrounding environment.” Schroeder said.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill also gave a perspective on the economic cost of a deep-water spill. So far BP have shown the economic cost is upwards of $60 billion. The cost of cleaning up in the Arctic, far away from land, in harsh weather conditions, is incalculable.

The realization that even Shell, Europe’s largest energy producer doesn’t seem to be in control, have made environmental organizations hope the U.S. government will stop the drilling in the Arctic.

“This string of mishaps by Shell makes it crystal clear that we are not ready to drill in the Arctic,” Charles Clusen, director of National Parks and Alaska Projects for the Natural Ressources Defence Council said. “Shell is not Arctic-ready. We are asking the Obama administration to immediately put a hold on all permitting activities.”

Tad Patzek, a former Shell researcher who chairs the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin, says “In 10, 15 years we should be able to develop much better and safer technology that will actually allow us to produce some of the Arctic. The key in my mind is not to make a large mistake on the way there.”

Drilling in the Arctic is of course high risk – high reward, but at the moment the consequences seem insurmountable and the chance of failure to high. The overwhelming lesson of the Kulluk is that, despite all the precautions taken by Shell, neither the company's executives nor federal regulators were fully prepared for the hazardous conditions in the Arctic. They now might have to realise that the technology needs to be developed further to lower the risks of permanently damaging the environment.



Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat
Fram Centre, Postboks 6606 Langnes, NO-9296 Tromsø, Norway