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Oil-spill related Risks of Shell’s Plan for Exploration Drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean

The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has given Shell the green light to drill offshore exploration wells in the U.S. Arctic Ocean this summer where the challenges of coping with an oil rig blowout would far surpass those related to BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico for the following reasons:

Extreme weather: The Arctic Ocean is dominated by moving packs of sea ice, extreme storms, darkness and sub-zero temperatures for most of the year. The fleeting Arctic summer isn’t much better, with high temperatures in the 40s, gale-force winds, week-long storms and heavy fog. Eight-foot seas have already temporarily halted clean-up efforts with BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout. In the Arctic Ocean, broken ice combined with severe winds and high waves present even more demanding conditions.

Distance to offshore drill rigs: Shell’s proposed drilling sites are located between 80 and 160 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea.

Lack of infrastructure: Docks large enough to manage oil spill cleanup vessels in the Chukchi Sea are more than 250 miles away in Prudhoe Bay. In the first 24 hours after an accident, Shell’s contingency plan says it would only have 13 spill response vessels available (including workboats, skimming vessels, storage barges, and mini-barges) with a skimming capacity of 24,000 barrels per day, one firefighting vessel and less than 3,000 feet of containment boom. By comparison, BP responded to the Deepwater Horizon blowout within the first 24 hours with 32 spill response vessels, a skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels per day, at least six firefighting vessels and 417,320 feet of containment boom.

The risk of a blowout occurring during exploration drilling this summer is dismissed yet BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident happened during exploration work: Shell’s 2010 exploration plan states that “a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.” MMS’s environmental assessment of the impacts of an oil spill during exploration ignores the risk of a blowout risk as well, saying that “the probability of a large spill occurring during exploration is insignificant and, therefore, this [environmental assessment] does not analyze the impacts of large spills from exploration operations.”

The drilling exploration and contingency plans dismiss the environmental effects of a blowout: MMS analyzes only the effects from a small diesel fuel spill of 48 barrels (2000 gallons), saying that this was justified because of the low risk of a larger crude oil spill. In its review of the Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193, MMS analyzed the effects from a platform spill totaling 1,500 barrels (63,000 gallons) of oil. By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon blowout was spilling an estimated 5,000 barrels a day (almost 210,000 gallons) as of April 28th and covered an area of about 28,600 square miles – slightly larger than West Virginia -- with a circumference of 600 miles, according to the Coast Guard.

The contingency plan does not take into account a blowout that damages the drilling rig: Shell assumes that if a blowout occurred, the drill rig would be unharmed and available to drill a relief well if necessary. Shell has not identified an alternative drill rig even though MMS says this is a requirement before drilling this summer. If another drill rig could not be brought in before freeze-up, a spill would be left uncontrolled until spring. In both the 2009 Montara blowout in the Timor Sea off Australia and BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout, the rig burned and/or sank.

Oil spill cleanup technology hasn’t been proven to work in the Arctic Ocean: Shell’s proposed cleanup methods -- mechanical response and in-situ burning -- are both ineffective in the Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard has acknowledged that they lack adequate response capability to contain and clean up an oil spill in sea ice.

Resources: Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director, Pew Environment Group, also former director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Commission (206) 321-1834,

Tim Robertson, oil spill expert and general manager of Nuka Research, (907) 234-7821,

Contact: Ruth Teichroeb, Oceans North: Protecting Life in the Arctic Communications Manager, Arctic Program, Pew Environment Group, 206-453-2374 (o) 206-450-1198 (c)

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