Protecting the Arctic
Supplementary written evidence submitted by Greenpeace
During the evidence session on 21 February 2012, Professor Peter Wadhams made reference to the oil spill contingency plans of Shell in Alaska and suggested that the company has a containment device ready to deploy in case of an accident and that it had willingly shortened its drilling window because of the risks posed by ice encroachment. Unfortunately, neither of these are accurate.
Firstly, Shell’s capping and containment device has not yet been built or tested at depth or in ice conditions in the Arctic. As the Seattle Times noted, "Shell must still obtain approval from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which must inspect and approve equipment that has been designed for spill response. That equipment includes Shell's capping stack, a device that could be lowered onto a well after a blowout". [FN1] US regulators confirmed this, saying "the capping stack and all other specialized containment equipment will be tested by government inspectors before it is shipped to the Arctic"[FN2]. A shell spokesman said that this is "being fabricated in Louisiana and will be tested in Washington or Alaska waters before drilling begins."[FN3] The key point is that the US government has given the all clear to the spill plan even though the containment device that Professor Wadhams referred to is currently completely untried, untested and hasn’t even been built yet. As such, relying on it as a central plank of an Arctic spill response would appear to be quite a leap of faith.
Secondly, Shell did not willingly reduce its drilling window off Alaska by 38 days this year. Quite the opposite. The decision was taken by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in December when it gave conditional approval for Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea,[FN4] ruling that "Shell must cease drilling into zones capable of flowing liquid hydrocarbons 38 days before the first-date of ice encroachment over the drill site."[FN5] Shell’s response has been to challenge the decision because "it essentially takes away one-third of the time we would be able to drill, which means the elimination of one well from our three-well exploration plan. This would have a significant effect." Crucially, the Shell spokesman added, "we believe the restriction is unwarranted."[FN6]
It may also be worth mentioning the WWF comment on the spill plan news, and their research that "even during the most favourable weather conditions of July and August, a response to an oil spill would only be possible in the Beaufort Sea between 44 and 46 percent of the time." Because of this, "the risks and potential impacts associated with this Arctic offshore oil development plan are currently unacceptably high and unmanageable. Given the difficult working conditions and lack of infrastructure found in the Arctic, it would be irresponsible to begin drilling."[FN 7]
21 February 2012