Royal Dutch Shell plans to drill for oil this spring in the arctic Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the northern coasts of Alaska, but watchdogs and environmentalists are not yet convinced that Shell and federal regulators have taken enough steps to prevent or contain a potential oil spill in the treacherous and icy waters.
The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says the new regulatory agency that was set up to ensure offshore drilling safety after the Deepwater Horizon disaster "lacks basic assurances" that oil spills and other accidents will be prevented if Shell begins producing oil in arctic waters where sea ice and harsh conditions make drilling and spill containment difficult.
PEER filed a lawsuit last week against federal regulators seeking access to information about what is being done to ensure operational safety.
Shell originally had planned to begin drilling this fall despite challenges from environmental groups, but the company fell behind schedule and postponed drilling after ice interrupted exploratory drilling and its spill containment and prevention equipment suffered a series of embarrassing failures during tests in the much more forgiving waters of the Puget Sound.
The worst accident occurred during a test of an oil spill containment dome in September. The dome malfunctioned, sank 120 feet and had to be recovered before hitting the bottom. Mark Fesmire, a top offshore drilling regulator, described the dome's failure to a colleague in a startling email that was later released to the media: "As bad as I thought ... basically the top half is crushed like a beer can," he wrote.
Fesmire heads the Alaska office of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the regulatory agency under the Interior Department created during a reorganization of federal agencies in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
After Shell postponed its arctic drilling plans, Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar issued an encouraging statement, calling the arctic oil expedition part of President Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. Salazar pledged to continue to work with Shell, and he said valuable lessons had been learned through the company's efforts; but he did not mention the failed containment dome.
"We have yet to see any evidence supporting the claim that Interior has upgraded the lax enforcement enabling the BP Gulf spill," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "In fact, what few records we have been able to pry loose suggest just the opposite."
PEER has sought information on how BSEE will address issues such as spill containment if Shell goes forward with its arctic drilling plans, but the group said BSEE has failed to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). PEER filed suit against BSEE last week alleging the agency is withholding information on Shell's containment dome and other safety and operational measures.
A BSEE spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout on the matter.
"This material on operational safety should be on the World Wide Web, not locked away in a proprietary safe," Ruch said.
A lawsuit filed earlier this year against BSEE revealed the agency had performed "only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis" of an oil well capping system designed to prevent a repeat of the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We learned that Shell and BSEE clearly do not yet have their act together on Arctic offshore drilling," said Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill response and a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member.
American watchdogs are not the only ones concerned. In September, a committee in the British Parliament voted to urge Shell to halt drilling until enhanced risk-reduction measures were in place. A few days later, Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of the oil drilling giant Total, told reporters he believed that the risk of an oil spill while drilling in the Arctic waters was simply too high.