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arcticTwo major oil companies, Shell and ConocoPhillips, would like to begin drilling in Arctic waters. But before they do so, they would like the U.S. government to overlook federal guidelines that require them to keep emergency spill response equipment on standby. 

An inter-agency review of the Interior Department’s proposed drilling guidelines is currently being carried out, so the official requirements for Arctic drilling are not yet known. What is known is what has been gleaned from U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) documents released from meetings earlier this month.

Shell, in particular, does not want to be forced to build a second oil rig in the Chukchi Sea. Under the current guidelines, the second rig is required to drill a relief well in the case of a blowout. Shell already has plans to build a second rig in the future (according to Fuel Fix, that would satisfy the relief rig requirement), but to build one now, it says, would cost $250 million per year “with no demonstrated environmental benefit.”

Shell argues that relief wells have not been shown to control drilling blowouts in the last 40 years and that an equivalent technology, such as a capping stack, would be preferable. A capping stack would temporarily halt a blowout, lock the oil and gas below ground, and allow the company to return months later to drill a relief well.

Of course the truth is a little more nuanced. In 2010, BP used a containment cap on the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which offered a temporary solution, but it was only after a relief well was drilled that the spill was finally stopped (87 days and 210 million gallons of oil later).

Both Shell and ConocoPhillips are also asking the U.S. government to dispense with a proposed rule that would ban the use of chemical dispersants in the case of a spill. Dispersants have been shown to prevent oil from washing ashore and to protect animals on the water’s surface. However, dispersants effects can be deadly to underwater animals and it is unknown how long it would take the chemicals to biodegrade in the cold Arctic waters.

The U.S. government wants oil companies to use booms, skimmers and other physical equipment in lieu of the dispersants. Shell claims that, “A 100 percent mechanical requirement leads to increasing costs and environmental impacts — less recovery of oil — as operators enter plays with higher daily worst-case discharges.”

But mechanical emergency equipment and relief wells would be absolutely necessary in the case of an Arctic spill. If a spill occurred during the winter months, response measures would be impossible due to sea ice cover, forcing crews to abandon the well and return months later. Fuel Fix estimates that a blowout could discharge anywhere between 8,700 and 23,100 barrels per day.

“[I]t took months in the Gulf to drill a relief well,” said Marilyn Heimann, director of the U.S. Arctic Program for Pew Charitable Trusts, “and they were not contending with extreme cold, darkness, high seas and ice.”

Greenpeace finds the idea of Arctic drilling abhorrent and potentially disastrous. U.S. Geological Survey estimates put the amount of oil at about 90 billion barrels – which is enough to “satisfy three years of the world’s oil demand.” But, put another way, “These giant, rusting rigs with their inadequate oil spill response plans are risking the future of the Arctic for three years worth of oil.”

Greenpeace also points out that the Russian oil industry spills 30 million barrels* of oil each year – seven times the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The remoteness of the region is also a major consideration. Approximately 6,000 ships were used to skim oil during the Gulf disaster. Shell has nine ships set aside in its primary oil response plan for the Chukchi Sea.

Even apart from the environmental damage a spill would cause, drilling in the Arctic also invites further climate change. As Sierra Club Arctic Campaign Director Dan Ritzman writes,

“Tapping into and burning oil from the Arctic Ocean will pump dangerous amounts of carbon pollution into the air, worsening climate change. It will also coat Arctic ice surfaces with black, heat-absorbing soot, further speeding the melting of ice that is already at record low levels, in an Arctic that is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

The Interior Department may release a draft of its Arctic guidelines later this year. Until then, Shell and ConocoPhillips will continue their efforts to save money in the lucrative waters of the great white north.

Shell, for one, is certain to be much more careful this time around. Its Kulluk drilling rig, pictured above, ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska after the choppy seas separated it from its tow ships. Carrying about 139,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricating oil and hydraulic fluid, the Kulluk was a $292 million disaster.

Admittedly, that’s small peanuts compared to the $4 billion the company has spent on its overall and unsuccessful efforts to drill in the Arctic over the last six years.

*One barrel of oil is equivalent to 42 U.S. gallons.

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