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Scant Testing for Shell Oil Spill Equipment, Despite Green Light in Arctic

- Common Dreams staff

Crucial technology to be used by oil giant Shell for oil spill cleanup operations in the Arctic has undergone scant testing, according to recent documents obtained by environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Shell Alaska in the Chukchi Sea. (Royal Dutch Shell) The key technology in question, known as a well-head capping stack, would be used in response to a well-head blowout in Shell's Arctic drilling program akin to BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010; however, Shell's technology "underwent only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis of the results," according to PEER.

Last week, the group filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement. The Bureau reluctantly released a one page set of notes pertaining to the equipment testing after legal pressure.

The released notes "belie the agency’s claim in press statements that it had conducted 'comprehensive' testing to meet 'rigorous new standards,'" according to PEER.

“To say that these tests were rigorous or comprehensive is certainly a stretch,” stated Rick Steiner, PEER board member, who submitted the FOIA request. “A simple emissions test report for my car is far more rigorous than what BSEE has produced for Shell's Arctic capping stack. From this, we still don’t know that this critical piece of equipment will work if needed.”

According to PEER, the findings include:

  • Tests were run for minutes, not hours, despite the fact that any capping system would need to withstand hours, days or weeks of pressure in icy conditions many other variables;
  • Tests initially lacked a “low-pressure test,” though Shell claimed it would perform this test later; and
  • The tests went unmonitored by an independent engineer or any third party. Other than the one page of notes, BSEE produced no evidence of what the testing actually showed.

As a result, federal overseers are relying on insider "industry assurances of safety" as Shell readies its Arctic drilling operations.

“The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200 feet of water without dropping it,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed a federal lawsuit against BSSE to force the release of its report. “The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumpling. Neither result should give the American public much comfort.”

Last week the Obama administration gave Shell the green light to begin "preparatory activities" for oil drilling in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.