Shell’s Kulluk Rig Grounding Proves Folly of Arctic Oil Drilling, Again

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell spent a good portion of 2012 defending allegations that the company wasn’t “arctic ready.”  The disaster that occurred with their offshore drilling rig Kulluk on New Year’s Eve only served to prove that the company is not to be trusted.

Tug crews towing the floating Kulluk rig in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska lost connection with the vessel during a storm on December 31. Kulluk subsequently washed ashore with the waves. The U.S. Coast Guard says that the Shell vessel currently does not appear to be leaking, but it is estimated to have about 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard.

In response to Shell’s failures to safely operate this vessel, as well as their countless failures in recent history, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune issued the following statement

In just one year, Shell has proven over and over again that they are completely incapable of safely drilling in the Arctic. Their ships have caught fire and lost control, they’ve damaged their own spill containment equipment, and they’ve been caught entirely unprepared for the challenges of the Arctic…This is the last straw.  We should judge Shell not by their assurances or their PR tactics, but by their record – and Shell’s record clearly demonstrates that letting them operate in the Arctic is an invitation for disaster.

The Sierra Club is calling on the Obama administration to immediately revoke Shell’s Arctic drilling permits. NRDC, the Wilderness Society and other groups are expected to issue similar requests this week. 

Bloomberg News quotes Charles Clusen, director of National Parks and Alaska Projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council, saying

This string of mishaps by Shell makes it crystal clear that we are not ready to drill in the Arctic. Shell is not Arctic-ready. We are asking the Obama administration to immediately put a hold on all permitting activities.”

Kulluk's Arctic endeavor was problematic from the start, as activists and citizens in Alaska feared the worst from the vessel located 12 miles offshore from protected federal lands.  Now it appears that those fears may come to fruition.

To put the distance into perspective, photographer Gary Braasch documented the vessel’s distance to the protected lands earlier in 2012 before the Kulluk grounded:


Braasch points out that Kulluk is one of two floating oil rig vessels operated by Shell in the area, the other is located about 70 miles off Alaska’s western coast near the Bering Strait. 

While it would have been difficult to predict Kulluk’s fate in this manner, it wasn’t a secret that there would be problems with Shell’s Arctic activities.  DeSmog highlighted the safety problems that Shell is encountering in December 2012:

The full extent of the company's failed attempts to test oil spill response gear was recently revealed by Seattle's NPR radio affiliate KUOW. Shell has faced repeated criticism and regulatory scrutiny over its cavalier attitude towards Arctic drilling, and the KUOW investigation makes clear why Shell is not “Arctic Ready” by a long shot.

Documents obtained by KUOW through FOIA requests indicate that Shell's oil spill response gear failed spectacularly in tests this fall in the relatively tranquil waters of Puget Sound.

The containment dome – which Shell sought to assure federal regulators would be adequate to cap a blowout in the event of emergency at its Arctic operations – failed miserably in tests.  The dome “breached like a whale” after malfunctioning, and then sank 120 feet. When the crew of the Arctic Challenger recovered the 20-foot-tall containment dome, they found that it had “crushed like a beer can” under pressure.

Photo credit: BSEE, obtained via FOIA by KUOW.

The Arctic is home to numerous species of marine mammals including four different species of whales, polar bears, and 64 different species of seabirds.  

While the vessel is not currently leaking fuel, according to reports, the longer it sits just offshore, the greater the chances of a massive fuel leak that could destroy this protected natural habitat. Among other impacts, a spill would jeopardize vital food systems that provide sustenance for nearby villages. 

Shell's current woes are just one of many reasons why Big Oil has no business in the Arctic.

NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration posted a blog yesterday with the following section on some of the particular threats of a diesel leak from Kulluk

Of note is the fact that the shores of Kodiak Island, where the rig grounded, fall within critical habitat for the endangeredSteller sea lion.

View from Arctic ERMA showing the location of the drilling rig Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and critical habitat for Steller sea lions.

View from Arctic ERMA showing the location of the drilling rig Kulluk aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, and critical habitat for Steller sea lions. Click to enlarge.

State and federal agencies have been evaluating harm to natural resources from a potential release of diesel fuel from the Kulluk. The rig is located close to two salmon streams, an area where razor clams are harvested for subsistence use, and a planned tanner crab fishery expected to open on January 15. Sampling clams, sediment, and water around the rig would offer a baseline comparison if fuel would be released and possibly contaminated the surrounding area.  However, because the area is remote, traveling there to perform these samples would be challenging.

Image credit: PA3 Jon Klingenberg/Coast Guard