A wave of protest is growing not only in the US but also in many other countries of the world in connection with the recent decision taken by Shell and supported by the Obama administration, to start implementing the plans to send two oil-extracting platforms for drilling five oil wells near the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea. The international community, unlike the US financial tycoons, is well aware that such plans by Shell considerably increase the risk of a global environmental disaster on a scale that can eclipse the accident in the Gulf of Mexico. Incidentally, the probability that a similar ecological catastrophe could occur in the Arctic in the event of oil development there, is actually estimated by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to be at 75%.
Two ship drilling rigs and about 25 safety vessels have been hired for the development of Alaska Shell. The Noble Discoverer drilling vessel will operate in the Chukchi Sea, while the drilling barge Kulluk has been sent to the Beaufort Sea. At the same time it is noteworthy that the Noble Discoverer is a dry cargo carrier built in 1966 and remodelled into a drill ship, and that it was involved in the recent accident off the coast of New Zealand.
In recent years, oil companies from many countries have been looking with particular excitement towards the Arctic where a current US Geological Survey estimates lies about 90 billion barrels of oil, of which 20 are concentrated in the icy Alaskan waters. This region has become particularly attractive to them in recent years, with the advent of new drilling technologies, climate change and the melting of Arctic polar ice, as well as the depletion of conventional oil fields. This is why the world’s leading oil companies have already managed to divide spheres of influence in the region: Royal Dutch Shell settled on the coast of Alaska, Statoil is located in the Norwegian Polar region, and ExxonMobil and “Rosneft” have a joint oil well in the Russian Arctic though the sanctions imposed by Washington in the fall of 2014 for American companies forced ExxonMobil to leave this project.
However, it isn’t simple to realise these mentioned hopes in the Arctic. For example, Shell has already worked in the American Polar Plateau. The first drilling platform was established in Alaska (Cook Islands) in 1964 but the results of the drill hole research proved to be unsatisfactory and operations were stopped in 1997. In 2010 and 2011 Shell planned to start drilling in the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea but the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent refusal of the United States Environmental Protection Agency to grant the company permission to conduct work prevented these plans from being realised.
Nevertheless, Shell returned to Alaska in 2012 for the development of Torpedo and Sivulliq prospects in the Beaufort Sea and the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea. As previously reported by the former CEO of Shell, Peter Voser, the company invested nearly $ 5 billion for these operations in Alaska. However, Shell’s exploration drilling program failed in 2013 and nearly ended in disaster with the loss of the drill barge Kulluk, promptly abandoned by the crew and left stranded on one of the islands in the south of Alaska, after which the US government banned the company to continue operations until they addressed security issues.
It should be noted that Shell has repeatedly been involved in major scandals concerning the damage done to the environment and the health of people in different regions of the world. For example, the Court of Nicaragua declared in 2001 that Shell, who produced the toxic pesticide dibromochloropropane for the entire second half of the XX century, guilty of causing grievous bodily harm to people. However, the damages of 490 million dollars in favour of injured citizens haven’t been paid by the company.
In 2008, there was a major oil spill due to a break in the Shell pipeline in the province of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta and according to the UN report the clean-up in the vast territory covered with fuel oil can take up to 30 years. Recently, the Dutch-British oil giant Royal Dutch Shell agreed to pay $80 million to Nigerian farmers living in the Niger Delta as compensation for the damages caused by this environmental disaster. However, can this meagre, even for Shell, payout compensate the residents and the nature of the region for the damage?
Another oil spill caused by Shell occurred on the African continent in 2011 which then resulted in parliamentarians in Abujasuggesting that the company pay damages of 4 billion dollars.
In 2013, the British government announced that the Anglo-Dutch company was guilty of twenty cases of pollution in British waters in only six months of that year. It is for this reason that the British “Ecologists” have repeatedly stated that the statistics of oil spills of the Department of Energy and Climate Change show the necessity of forbidding Shell oil production in the Arctic waters with their especially fragile ecosystem.
We should not forget that, according to the US Department of Minerals Management, there have been 858 different scale fires and explosions (an average of one incident every four days) on offshore platforms in 2001-2010 alone, which makes the possibility of another environmental disaster while working for Shell in the Arctic more than a reality. As for the effectiveness of efforts to eliminate oil spills and pollution, the US Geographical Service itself acknowledges that only up to 20% may be collected in the Arctic.
For your information: after the Deepwater Horizon accident only 3% of the oil was cleaned up and in the case of the Exxon Valdez, the figure reached 9%.
If we talk about the efficiency of avoiding oil spills, we should remember that in the Arctic this work is complicated by many natural phenomena: fogs and storms, long polar night, low temperatures, ice, restrictive access and reduced effectiveness of specialised vessels, icing of vehicles and equipment, increased oil viscosity, reduced efficiency of equipment in extreme conditions of the Far North, slow process of decomposition of hydrocarbons and their consumption by marine micro-organisms. Also we must not forget that an oil spill clean-up in the region will be very difficult due to logistical issues, as in the Arctic there are no ports and other infrastructure in attainable proximity to service security ships and accommodate persons participating in the oil spill clean-up.
The environmental company Pew Environment Group recently studied oil spill contingency plans drawn up to be implemented in the Arctic and said that the oil industry is “not ready for operations in the Arctic, and its plans underestimate the probability of an accident and its consequences, especially within the boundaries of the American part of the Arctic Ocean shelf.”
We must not forget that the North Sea in Alaska is a haven for tens of thousands of whales, hundreds of thousands of walruses and seals, millions of birds, thousands of polar bears, countless fish and other representatives of underwater world. The Arctic Ocean is one of the last corners of the marine ecological paradise that exist on Earth. But unfortunately Obama and his administration have completely forgotten this.
This is why the active opposition of environmentalists and the international community to Shells return to the Arctic is very reasonable and the task of stopping the destruction of the Arctic is highly relevant. To achieve this it is first of all necessary to remove the threat from that part that is in danger today – from Alaska.
Vladimir Odintsov, political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.