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Shell Has NOT Learned From Its Mistakes

Here's the bottom line: Shell cannot be trusted in the Arctic. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Shell claims to have learned from its mistakes. Not quite.

Have you heard about when Shell tried to drill in the Arctic three years ago?

Shell’s fleet entered the Arctic for exploratory drilling in the summer of 2012 with two rigs, the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer, both owned by Noble Drilling. Challenges started early for the Noble Discoverer — in early July the rig might have ran aground during a storm, but the Coast Guard cleared the ship to move on.

The voyage was halted for months as Shell waited for its spill response equipment dome that would never come — during a calm water sea-trial in the Puget Sound the containment dome shot to the surface, sank 120 feet and was “crushed like a beer can.” Instead of stopping, Shell persisted and changed its plans from drilling for oil to only sinking a partial well.

The Kulluk made its first attempt to drill on September 8th in the Chukchi Sea, and within 24 hours powerful winds pushed an ice flow at the rig and it was forced to retreat. Shortly after this attempt, the fleet made plans to head home.

The Noble Discoverer made an uneventful trip from Chukchi Sea to Dutch Harbor, but two weeks later an engine issue caused a fire in the port and forced the crew to shut down the engines. Investigators later learned about unreported engine failures and oil waste discharge into the ocean. Noble Drilling pled guilty to eight felony charges and agreed to pay $12.2 million in fines.

The Kulluk could not head home immediately like the Discoverer — it had to wait to offboard most of its 83-person crew. The rig stayed in the Arctic well into November, and began to experience the harsh Alaskan winter. Shell planned to travel to Dutch Harbor and then further to Seattle, but its contracted company said the trip from Dutch Harbor to Seattle would be too dangerous. Shell was desperate to make the trek (and possibly avoid taxes), and instead of heeding the safety advice, Shell hastily contracted a new group to make the trek.

By late December the Kulluk began its three-week journey from Dutch Harbor to Seattle. Almost immediately, the cord connecting the Kulluk and its tugboat snapped, and the engines of the tugboat failed causing the two vessels to drift at sea during dangerous winter storms. The Coast Guard was forced to intervene and rescue members aboard the Kulluk.

Aiviq, the Kulluk’s tugboat, continued to pull the rig through worsening conditions by an emergency cord. After many days traveling through fatal storms, Shell made the call to cut the cord. Within 45 minutes the Kulluk hit the shore.

Weeks later Shell announced a “pause” in its drilling, but Shell now plans to return to the Arctic this summer. U.S. Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, said Shell has learned, “some very painful and expensive lessons” about contractors and Arctic drilling.

That’s simply untrue. Shell cannot be trusted in the Arctic.

In its plans for Arctic drilling this Summer, Shell is returning with the Noble Discoverer, under the same contractor Noble Drilling, and a new vessel, the Polar Pioneer under the company Transocean. By entrusting Noble Drilling (responsible for the grounding of the Kulluk) and Transocean (which was partially responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster) with its Arctic drilling plans, Shell is backpedaling on its safety measures.

When confronted about safety precautions, Shell points confidently to its Arctic Challenger containment dome. The dome has undergone successful tests in the calm waters of Washington. But will it withstand the much more extreme conditions of the Arctic waters?

And with oil prices plunging, Shell has canceled several other projects while going full steam ahead in the Arctic this year. Based on their success rate thus far, Shell is betting on an environmental disaster. 

Shell is on the path to make many of the same mistakes as it made in 2012. And with Obama’s own administration citing that there is a 75 percent chance of an oil spill in the Arctic, we can’t afford such insecurity.

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Haley Rabic

Haley Rabic is an online intern for Greenpeace.

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