I’m an artist. I love art. I create art. I get upset when someone tries to denigrate the very meaning of art. So I was outraged when I learned that on February 21 a group of Greenpeace pranksters installed a 131–feet long banner outside the National Gallery in London with text that reads “It’s No Oil Painting: Save the Arctic,” and backdrop that shows an oil rig and a marred Shell logo. I got nightmares thinking, did they drill into the hallowed walls of the National Gallery with metal tools to install that banner? You can see photos of this outrageous act here. What were they trying to accomplish? That, they think they are some kind of an installation artist collective; and by pulling a stunt like that their banner will be shown at prestigious art biennales like my arctic photographs would be at the 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations this year. Never. The only thing their action accomplished was this: it gave serious indigestion to good–natured suited–booted tie–wearing museum administrators who had gathered inside for an evening event, and had good food and wine—all courtesy of Shell. In the law–abiding democracy in the United States of America we do not tolerate such mischief that could lead to property damage (minor drill misdemeanors of BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell—those we can live with). So I was very pleased when on March 1 Los Angeles Times reported, “Greenpeace ordered to stay away from Shell's Arctic drilling rigs.”
Then on March 3rd Los Angeles Times published an article with title, “Shell oil rig set for landmark Alaska journey.” Kim Murphy writes, “After one of the biggest environmental fights in decades, exploratory drilling is expected to begin in July off the state’s north coast. The company has plans in case of a spill.”
What caught my attention are those words, “The company has plans in case of a spill.” It is possible that Shell does have “plans.” Shell can indeed clean up a spill in the Arctic Ocean, if and only if they employ top magicians, and also top public relations firms—Exxon did that for the Valdez spill in Alaska, and Union Carbide did that for the Bhopal kill in India. A June 25, 2010 Union of Concerned Scientists press release states that “the same PR firm that represented Exxon after the Valdez oil spill,” also represented “Union Carbide after the Bhopal chemical disaster.” Yes, magicians and PR people working together can clean any spill, anywhere, including in the harsh, frozen arctic seas.
Shell in Sakhalin
Let’s take a closer look at some of Shell’s illustrious record from past operations. In November 2007, on a photography assignment (The Arctic Oil Rush) from Vanity Fair, I visited Siberia with Robert Thompson, Iñupiat conservationist and board chair of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL—one of the 13 nonprofits that Shell recently sued with a preemptive strike). There we spent time with two arctic indigenous communities—the Eveny reindeer herders and the Yukaghir hunters. Even though I didn’t visit Sakhalin then, I began to learn about Shell’s offshore drilling operation there, in Far Eastern Siberia.
First, I’d note that the latitude of Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk is about 51 degrees N, whereas, the latitude of Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of arctic Alaska is about 68 degrees N, and is above the Arctic Circle—far harsher environment than Sakhalin.
On September 14, 2011 Carole Holley of the Pacific Environment had sent me a package of information about Shell’s Sakhalin operation. (Pacific Environment is also one of those 13 nonprofits that Shell recently sued.) Over the past decade, Pacific Environment has worked closely with Sakhalin Environment Watch, a leading Russian environmental organization. In April 2011, SEW Executive Director Dmitry Lisitsyn received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize “in recognition of his decades–long struggle to defend Sakhalin Island from onshore and offshore oil and gas projects.” And in September 2011 they had a conservation victory.
Here are some stories I found interesting from Carole’s documents that I’ll share with you.
A January 19, 2005 press release titled, “Oil majors attempt to suppress Sakhalin indigenous peoples’ protest” from Sakhalin Environment Watch states:
“The indigenous peoples of Sakhalin, who practice a traditional self–subsistence economy based on fishing, hunting, reindeer herding and wild plant gathering, are bearing the brunt of the negative ecological impacts of the Sakhalin extraction projects. Structural engineering has already destroyed reindeer pastures and forests, while offshore work has led to an abrupt decline in fish stocks, making traditional handicrafts the only source of livelihood. The absence of complete and reliable project information and the companies’ unwillingness to engage seriously in dialogue with indigenous peoples’ organizations have forced the Association to prepare for direct action. Several indigenous peoples’ groups—the native Nivkh’s communities, Sakhalin Evenks, Sakhalin Nanaytsy community, Association of Indigenous People of Nogliki Region, Association of Indigenous People of Sakhalin Region, Association of Indigenous People of Russia—are set to take part in tomorrow’s protest [that led to a 5–day long protest]. At the same time, Shell–led Sakhalin Energy and Exxon Oil and Gas are putting pressure upon participants to the Green Wave protest action. For the past few days, oil company representatives have been visiting indigenous people settlements in an attempt to persuade them not to participate in the protest. They have also threatened to fire those employees who participate in the protest. These employees have received threats to be fired even if one of their relatives should participate in the protest.”
Then, on December 2, 2005 The New York Times reported in an article titled, “Shell’s Sakhalin oil project should be reined in”:
“The oil pipeline will cross over 1,000 wild rivers and tributaries, many of them important to salmon spawning. In addition, despite public protests, a million tons of dredging waste has already been dumped into Aniva Bay—an area crucial to the livelihood of the island’s indigenous community—and has led to the destruction of the local fishery. To make matters worse, an oil platform is being built at the very spot off Sakhalin where the last 100 critically endangered Western Pacific gray whales feed. By Shell’s own estimates, there is a 24 percent chance that there will be a major oil spill during the life of the 40–year project.”
Eventually Shell did loose control of the Sakhalin project. On September 16, 2010 I wrote, “When Shell bought the Sakhalin leases in 1996, the price of oil was $22 a barrel and so little attention was paid. But five or six years ago, as the price of oil went through the roof, everyone began paying attention, including Mr. Vladimir Putin. Moscow sided with the Sakhalin Island environmentalists, and there was even a threat of a $50 billion lawsuit against Shell. In 2007, Shell was forced to give up half of its control of the Sakhalin operation to the Russian energy giant Gazprom.”
One of the documents Carole sent me was an article titled, “Actions speak louder than words: Shell’s record versus Shell’s promises” by Natalia Lisitsyna, Sakhalin Environment Watch’s staff lawyer and marine program coordinator. She wrote the piece in response to an article by Pete Slaiby, Vice–President of Shell’s Alaska operation that was published in the Anchorage Daily News. Lisitsyna wrote:
“When Shell began building Sakhalin II over ten years ago, we heard promises very similar to those in Alaska. However, reality turned out to be quite different from the rhetoric. The project brought all the elements of offshore oil development: construction of platforms and pipelines, seismic testing, increased vessel traffic, and drilling. It also threatens a vulnerable whale population and brought air and water pollution, fish kills, unprecedented inflation, and increased violence. And, as Alaskans know all too well, the specter of an oil spill is always present. The marine environment of both Sakhalin Island and Alaska’s Arctic are critically important for whales. Since the health of whale populations is so important to Alaska Natives, the case of Shell on Sakhalin provides important lessons. Our western Pacific gray whales have a population of only 130, which Shell has failed to shield from the pressures of oil development. Although Shell supposedly committed to follow all the recommendations of a panel of international whale scientists, Shell ignored findings that offshore drilling posed “potentially catastrophic threats to the population.” Instead, Shell built an offshore platform adjacent to the critically endangered western gray whale’s only feeding habitat. … My community has already suffered losses because of Shell’s broken promises but Alaskans still have time to protect their Arctic seas and their subsistence resources.”
On December 18, 2011 the Kolskaya floating oil rig while being towed during a storm capsized and sank in the Sea of Okhotsk. On December 23, 2011 in an Associated Press article titled, “Kolskaya Oil Rig Sinking Sparks Doubt Over Arctic Plan,” Nataliya Vasilyeva wrote, “The sinking of a floating oil rig [Kolskaya] that left more than 50 crew dead or missing is intensifying fears that Russian companies searching for oil in remote areas are unprepared for emergencies—and could cause a disastrous spill in the pristine waters of the Arctic. … Only four months ago, Russian energy giant Gazprom sent Russia’s first oil platform to the environmentally sensitive region, and industry experts and environmentalists warned it is unfit for the harsh conditions and is too far from rescue crews to be reached quickly in case of an accident. … Russian oil companies have never operated in weather conditions as harsh as those found in the ice–bound Arctic, where ice ridges are meters (yards) deep and storms are frequent. The Kolskaya accident has reinforced fears that they are unprepared to meet the challenges.” That was less than three months ago. Like those Russian companies, Shell does not have the technology or preparedness to respond to a spill in the frozen arctic seas of Alaska. In the same article, Vasilyeva also reported, “A giant oil slick was approaching the coast of Nigeria on Friday after what Royal Dutch Shell said was a spill during the transfer of oil from its floating platform in the offshore field to a waiting tanker.”
Shell in Niger Delta and Beyond
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And, Shell’s record of operation in the Niger delta? That would require books; a little article like this can never do justice. However, I’d only point out what an August 4, 2011 Guardian article titled, “Niger delta oil spills clean–up will take 30 years, says UN,” said:
“The UN Environment Programme has announced that Shell and other oil firms systematically contaminated a 1,000 sq km (386 sq mile) area of Ogoniland, in the Niger delta, with disastrous consequences for human health and wildlife. … Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International and director of Environment Rights Action in Nigeria, said: “The widespread pollution of Ogoniland as documented does not come as a surprise because the manifestation is physical and people have been living in that putrid situation for decades now. Now we know it will take up to 30 years to remediate the impacts, especially on the mangroves of the region.” He said the pollution had decimated the livelihoods of the Ogoni people.”
In an April 18, 2009 letter to the editor in the Anchorage Daily News, Dan Strickland of Palmer, Alaska wrote:
“… a visit to www.shelltruth.com reveals a troubled history in Barbados, Ecuador, Ireland, Nigeria, the North Sea, Louisiana, the Philippines, South Africa, Texas, and Sakhalin Island, Russia. Over 7,000 people representing 111 countries are decrying Shell and its treatment of the environment and local citizens. Lawsuits were filed last year against Shell for routinely violating permitted emissions in Texas and in Nigeria, where Shell pipelines averaged five spills a week for years, rendering soil and water unusable for farming or fishing. An auditor on Shell’s Brent Bravo platform in the North Sea alerted his supervisors that gas leak tests were being routinely falsified so that production would not be slowed. He was reassigned. Four years later, in 2003, a massive gas blowout took the lives of two men on the same platform.”
Let us return to the recent Los Angeles Times article, “Shell oil rig set for landmark Alaska journey.” If indeed, President Obama grants the few remaining permits to Shell, which most likely he will, and Shell starts exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas come July—Shell will “BP the Arctic” and destroy the rich marine environment there and the millennia old way of life of the indigenous Iñupiat communities.
If you care about the arctic, and want to stop Shell from going there, first, stop hoping that Obama will do something. He won’t. His administration has been rubber–stamping Shell’s permits without an Environmental Impact Statement and without thorough review. And, his administration has been ignoring what the Iñupiat communities and the environmental organizations have to say about Shell’s arctic drilling plan. Instead, if you really want to protect the arctic, I’d suggest get out on the streets like the indigenous people of Sakhalin Island did; and most certainly do bold, creative and outrageous peaceful acts all across the country like the Greenpeace pranksters did at the National Gallery in London—that caused indigestion, but might also save the arctic.