A total of 12 groups are challenging the US Department of Interior’s (DOI) decision to reaffirm the 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale that will allow oil and gas drilling in a nearly 30 million acre area of the Chukchi Sea outer continental shelf (OCS).
A walrus and pup on an ice floe in the Chukchi Sea.
Shell was just granted conditional approval from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) less than a month ago (11 May) for its US$1 billion, multi-year exploration plan for the Chukchi Sea.
The US supermajor has seen plenty of backlash from several groups, and to add to the list, Earthjustice, a group of environmental attorneys, filed a report to the Alaska federal district court on behalf of 12 groups on 1 June.
In reassessing the environmental effects of the lease sale, the DOI disclosed that there is a 75% chance of one or more major oil spills if the leases are developed in the Chukchi Sea. There is no way to contain or clean an oil spill in Arctic Ocean conditions, and a spill could have catastrophic consequences for the people and wildlife of the region, a statement from Earthjustice said.
The environmental organizations believe the DOI rushed the decision to affirm the lease sale to meet Shell’s desired schedule to drill this summer.
“Shell’s plan doubles down on the company’s failed 2012 efforts with bigger, dirtier, and riskier operations. Other companies like ConocoPhillips and Statoil obtained leases in the Chukchi Sea, too, but they are holding off on any plans for exploration,” Earthjustice said.
“Drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean only will hasten climate change at what is already ground zero for global warming,” Earthjustice Staff Attorney Erik Grafe, who is representing the 12 groups said. “Interior [DOI] ignored recent science that identifies Arctic oil as incompatible with meeting basic international commitments to curb the worst effects of climate change, putting the region, wildlife, and our communities further at risk. Gone should be the days of catering to Shell and big oil, rather it is time for the Obama administration to protect these waters from the dramatic and long-lasting effects drilling will have here and around the world.”
The groups challenging the DOI include: Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment, REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund.
DOI, BOEM approval
On 31 March, the DOI issued a record of decision affirming Shell’s Arctic leases, paving the way for BOEM to begin its formal review process.
The Polar Pioneer.
BOEM’s gave its conditional approval on 11 May, which was described as a “comprehensive review,” due to the need for Shell to obtain all necessary permits from other state and federal agencies, including permits to drill from the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and appropriate authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
One stipulation is that Shell cannot commence drilling operations until all biological opinions under the Endangered Species Act have been issued, and Shell is required to conduct all operations under the plan in compliance with the terms and conditions included in those opinions.
“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”
Alaska’s US Senator Lisa Murkowski said that more needs to be done in order to achieve Arctic development.
“Interior’s approval of the exploration permit is a key step, but more needs to be done in the coming weeks to ensure that Shell’s exploration program proceeds this summer. There is a total of seven permits that Shell must receive before it can resume drilling. Continued collaboration by the responsible federal agencies to ensure those outstanding permits are not saddled with unworkable conditions will be critical,” Murkowski said.
Shell’s Arctic return
According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic holds an estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas, as well as 13% of its oil and 22% of its natural gas liquids that are yet to be found. This amounts to around 400 billion boe, 10 times the total oil and gas produced in the North Sea to date.
Shell announced its plans to return to the Arctic in January, in its 4Q results, and will drill two wells with the Noble Discoverer and Polar Pioneer in search of these natural resources.
At the Offshore Technology Conference held in Houston, the US supermajor discussed its investment and current challenges it’s facing with its Arctic exploration program.
“Although the price of oil has plunged since last August, Shell doesn’t believe prices will remain low in the long term,” Pickard said. “As has been the case time and time again, rising global demand and the need for new supplies will remain the central drivers of the oil market. With the combination of rising global demand and declining production in current wells averaging about 5% per year, it is necessary to invest in developing projects that will tap into new supplies,” Ann Pickard Shell executive VP, Arctic said.
According to Shell, its Alaska operation maintains a highly capable emergency response planning and management program and illustrated in a video what Shell Alaska would do if a spill should occur.
Just last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) slammed the ultimate blame on Shell for being responsible for the grounding of the Kulluk ice-class mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) in 2012 offshore Alaska, due to the company’s inadequate assessment of the risk for the towing.
Polar Pioneer protest. Image from David Rosen.
One day after BOEM’s conditional approval on 12 May in Seattle, the Seattle City Council and Port of Seattle requested that Shell postpone the Transocean Polar Pioneer’s move to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 while permitting issues are worked out.
Terminal 5 has been leased for two years to Foss Maritime, who will service Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet.
Several dozen activists gathered in Seacrest Park on the West Seattle waterfront before launching their kayaks and a handful of small boats to protest. The demonstration organized by various groups, such as sHellNo, was only the first planned protest. sHellNo will continued to protest Shell’s Arctic activities from 16-18 May, according to the Seattle Times.
“We will converge on the Seattle waterfront by land and sea, transforming Terminal 5 and Harbor Island into a festival of resistance that will nonviolently block Shell’s preparations for Arctic drilling,” a statement from sHellNo said on its website.
In April, six members of Greenpeace boarded the Polar Pioneer while it was en route to the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after, US courts granted Shell a temporary restraining order against the organization, prohibiting them from performing similar protests.