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Government puts Shell’s arctic drilling plans on hold

As 25,000 barrels of oil a day continued to gush from a British Petroleum well 5,000 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama on May 27 announced that the federal government would order a pause in Royal Dutch Shell’s program to drill five exploratory oil wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas pending further review by the presidential commission established to investigate the Gulf spill.


“This is disastrous, catastrophic for us; 6,000 commercial and recreational fishermen have been completely shut down since Sunday [May 23] afternoon,” said Kirk Cheramie of the United Houma Nation. The tribe of 17,000 is located in six parishes along the southeast coast of Louisiana.

“If you want to know what I think about Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic, look at the Gulf of Mexico,” said George Edwardson, president of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope. “There’s no ice there and they can’t even clean up the oil.” The community is on the northern coast of Alaska.

Native Village of Point Hope President Caroline Cannon explained, “A response to a blowout in the Arctic would be virtually impossible, so it must be prevented, and the BP spill shows that cannot be done.” The village is located in northwestern Alaska, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea.


An oil field worker in the Gulf said in a statement that, “[The Deepwater Horizon] rig represents the cutting edge of drilling technology. … [T]his marvel of modern technology, which had been operating with an excellent safety record, has burned up and sunk taking souls with it.”

The Pew Environment Group’s comparison of BP’s response capabilities in the Gulf of Mexico with those of Shell in the Chukchi Sea found that Shell had less equipment in place to deal with a spill in the harsh Arctic environment than BP did to respond to a spill in an environment much more forgiving. For example, BP had 32 response vessels in the area, including a large storage barge, compared with Shell’s 13 vessels. BP’s skimming capacity was more than 171,000 barrels per day, compared with Shell’s 24,000 barrels a day. BP had 50,000 feet of boom in place, compared with the less than 6,000 feet Shell has.

In response to the BP spill and a request from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, Shell beefed up its response capacity, according to Kelly op de Weegh, with the company’s media relations, who said: “In light of the Deepwater Horizon incident, Shell identified additional and potential enhancements to our 2010 Arctic exploration plans, including increased BOP [blow-out prevention] testing frequency, evaluation of additional mechanical barriers, increased BOP activation methods, modified downhole evaluation methods and a pre-fabricated containment structure to be pre-staged in Alaska.”

Spill response equipment, however, is useless if it cannot get to the site of an incident. “They can’t use clean-up boats up north because of the ice,” Edwardson said. “If the drill rig blows up, the closest replacement drill ship is in the North Sea and would have to come around through the Panama Canal. If they could get here in three months, they’d be doing well. And they would have to get here and drill before the ice, he added.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission pointed out in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar: “[W]ith the use of traditional technologies, oil spills can and will happen. Moreover, oil spilled in the Arctic Ocean will not be cleaned up. And finally, a blowout on the arctic OCS carries the likelihood of unabated flow for up to a year.”

Shell planned to start drilling the first three of five exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in July. The wells in the Chukchi would be from 60 to more than 140 miles offshore, 250 miles from Prudhoe Bay, the nearest location where emergency equipment and responders could be staged. The amount of undiscovered technically recoverable oil in the Chukchi Sea is 15 billion barrels, an amount that could supply the U.S. for a mere one-and-a-half years. Cannon, however, explained why that amount was worth going after. “They’ll go in there hoping to find more resources.”

Alaska Oil Spill

The devastation that oil can bring to the Arctic was illustrated when the Exxon Valdez dumped 10.9 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound in 1989. Twenty years later, the Pacific herring, a foundation species for that region, is gone; the harbor seal, Harlequin duck, loon cormorants and pigeon guillemot have not recovered.

In the region that Shell has been permitted to drill, the bowhead whale, beluga whale, walrus, and bearded seal, ice seal, ribbon seal, fur seal, salmon and 150 other fish species, polar bear, migratory birds and countless other species already stressed by global warming would be at further risk.

“Shell plans to drill in the migratory path of the bowhead that we depend on, and in the middle of the North American salmon nurseries,” Edwardson said. One of the things the Native peoples want from the federal government is a baseline study conducted by some entity other than Shell, he said. “The baseline should be done by the U.S. government not the oil company trying to drill there.”

He also pointed out that the baseline study was conducted by visiting the same area for a couple of weeks in the summer two years running. “It takes years to do a baseline study. You have to be there all year to look for the changes that could cause the ecosystem to behave differently.


In the Gulf of Mexico, the fishing ban means potentially contaminated food, lost income and the profound disruption of a way of life. Asked how people were doing, Cheramie said, “I don’t think the shock has set in yet as hard as it’s going to. I expect to see the same problems as in Alaska [after the Exxon Valdez spill] – depression, increased domestic violence and drug abuse.”

The whales and other marine life of the Chukchi Sea provide sustenance and identity for the Native Village of Point Hope. Cannon explained, “We were blessed to land a 45-foot whale last week. In June begins a three-day feast, given to us by our great ancestors. Then again we celebrate the whale on Thanksgiving, Christmas. The ladies have a feast to initiate their boys.”

Boys, she explained, give their share of the whale to elders and widows. “You should see the smile on their faces when they give their share to an elder.” Girls also are part of the harvest. “I was part of the harvest at 9 years old. We pitch a tent down on the ice and make four or five meals a day for the men. We have coffee and tea all day, and dry clothes for them. I had that opportunity and I want to give it to my granddaughters.”

Life without the whales would be impossible for the villagers. “It is our identity, it’s who we are. When we don’t land a whale, we are not a community. Your identity is taken away when you are not part of that. There’s so much at stake.”

“We’ve been working to convince the administration not to lease on fragile ecosystem, natural, cultural resources. We need more science before we lease in the Arctic,” said the Pew Environment Group’s Marilyn Heiman. Among the scientific studies Heiman wants before drilling goes forward is a U.S. Geological Survey science and oil spill gap analysis.

Government-to-Government Consultations

Edwardson and Cannon said that government-to-government consultation had failed. “We had a meeting with the Minerals Management Service in Alaska one day and asked them not to go forward. The next day MMS Washington conducted the lease sale [Chukchi Lease Sale 193]. Our sovereignty should have been enough to stop it. Does the U.S. not have to listen to anyone anymore?”

“Our brothers and sisters in the Gulf cannot go out there and do subsistence fishing. It breaks my heart. Our hearts and prayers go out to them.” The Gulf tragedy has finally brought attention to risks of Alaska drilling. “No one was listening to us before that,” Cannon said.

Court Case

Earthjustice sued to stop Shell on behalf of several conservation and Native groups. They lost when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found against them and prohibited an appeal. Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said the groups alleged MMS had violated the National Environmental Protection Act by not doing an adequate environmental analysis before issuing Shell’s permit.

“MMS should have considered the possible effects of drilling in the feeding area of the endangered bowhead whale.” Grafe said the court ruled that MMS had complied with federal regulations at the time it issued the permit, despite his arguments that the Gulf oil spill required that Shell’s plan be re-analyzed. “They assumed there would be no oil spill because there hadn’t been one in 30 years, but the BP spill changed that. Under NEPA, you have to re-analyze when new information becomes available.”

Edwardson said the proceeding was weighted against them. “Two of the judges questioned our attorney as if they were trying to find fault with his arguments. They made the decision after the Gulf of Mexico accident on April 20, but they would not take that into consideration.”

“Even though the judges knew about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they still made the decision not to listen to us about Shell. They made the decision knowingly,” Cannon said.

The Future

Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum was forced to resign on the same day the president announced the suspension of offshore drilling permits. Two days earlier the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General had released a report excoriating MMS because inspectors had been shown to accept gifts from oil industry officials and to have downloaded pornography to agency computers. Also on May 25, the Washington Post published an investigative report alleging that MMS had intentionally ignored a scientist’s report on potential damages from an oil industry accident In the Arctic in order to avoid triggering an environmental impact statement.

Cheramie is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed mariner who worked in the oil fields. “I’m of the opinion,” he said, “that we don’t have the technology to be drilling where we are. Maybe we shouldn’t be drilling there.”

It’s an opinion that others share.

Edwardson, a geologist who spent 14 years working in the oil industry, said, “We’re opposed to drilling not because we’re worried and afraid but because they know exactly what they can do and can’t do in the Arctic – they have that knowledge from me and others who have worked for them.”

“Shell says a spill is not going to occur,” Cannon said. “Traditional knowledge tells us differently.”