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Shell Bores Into Arctic Sea Despite Flimsy Safety Tests

Common Dreams staff

“A simple emissions test report for my car is far more rigorous than what BSEE has produced for Shell's Arctic capping stack," said Rick Steiner, oil spill response expert. (photo: © Jörn Burger, Greenpeace Frankfurt a.M. via Flickr)

Shell began drilling into the Arctic on Sunday despite little safety testing and without its containment barge.

The company's Noble Discoverer began drilling "pilot holes" 1,400 feet beneath the sea floor in the Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles from the Alaska coast.

"In the days to come, drilling will continue in the Chukchi Sea, and we will prepare for drilling to commence in the Beaufort Sea," the company stated.

Environmental groups have slammed the Arctic drilling plan, and say Shell has not proven it would be able to respond to an oil spill.

Watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) obtained Shell's testing results for a well-head blowout response system in the Arctic through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and found no evidence to back up claims of “comprehensive” testing to meet “rigorous new standards.”

Describing the federal testing data they found, PEER writes that the tests in no way matched a real life scenario that would take place over days or months in the frigid conditions, and lacked any independent monitor.

“To say that these tests were rigorous or comprehensive is certainly a stretch,” stated Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill response and a retired University of Alaska professor and 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.”

“The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200 feet of water without dropping it,” added 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.”

Greenpeace compared the limited testing to the "recklessness" of a "stock-car race."

"Such recklessness wouldn't look out of place in a stock-car race," Ben Ayliffe, senior Arctic campaigner at Greenpeace, told the Guardian. "The only option now is for the US government to call a halt to Shell's plans to open up the frozen north because the company is so clearly unable to operate safely in the planet's most extreme environment.

"Whatever Shell is able to do in the narrow window between now and when the sea ice returns, it won't erase the clear evidence we've seen in the past two months that there's no such thing as safe drilling in the Arctic," said Ayliffe.

The Associated Press reports that Shell's oil spill containment barge, Arctic Challenger, remains in Bellingham, Wash., and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that Shell could begin drilling in non hydrocarbon zones without the Arctic Challenger present. But Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan says that is a risky move.

"There is equipment on the Arctic Challenger that could be crucial in case of an accident such as a gas blowout – something that is known to happen in non hydrocarbon drilling – and is designed to accommodate the Arctic’s extreme conditions," stated Shogan.

A report in the Houston Chronicle implies Shell may soon not be alone in its Arctic drilling operations:

"[I]t is what happens over the next few months in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas that may do more to dictate the contours of future planned drilling in the region by Shell as well as Statoil and ConocoPhillips."

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Video from Shell: Chukchi Sea Drilling Operations

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